Higher Education Leadership in Community Colleges Requires Flexibility, Ingenuity, Collaboration

May 18, 2023

Jay Falkner
Jay Falkner

Community college leaders are tasked with a significant and important challenge: helping their students achieve their academic and career goals while also helping to enhance the economic development of their region. Serving diverse student populations brings additional layers of responsibilities, challenges and opportunities to put skills in community college leadership to work.

Accomplishing these overarching goals while juggling myriad roles, responsibilities and challenges requires strong leadership skills and flexibility. To help ensure leaders are prepared, the University of Arkansas offers a master's degree in community college leadership that is delivered online.

U of A alumnus Jay Falkner is well aware of the complexities of community college education and faces his own unique challenges as president of Carl Albert State College in southeastern Oklahoma.

"I get to work with students who come from small towns in rural parts of the state, a lot of low-income, first-generation college students who haven't had any exposure to higher education outside of this institution," says Falkner, who received an outstanding doctoral student award from the College of Education and Health Professions while he was studying at the U of A.

There is a direct line from what is taught in the online community college leadership program at the University of Arkansas to the responsibilities an institution's president such as Falkner handles every day. He takes pride in the fact that CASC often serves as a student's introduction to higher education and all the possibilities, growth, and self-actualization it offers.

"That's powerful when you get to be a part of that," he says, adding the global pandemic, with lockdowns and school closings, has made it even more challenging for students to adapt to college life and the academic rigor that goes with it.

Like the majority of community colleges, CASC also serves a high percentage of adult learners as well as traditional-age students. Helping nontraditional students be successful is another part of his job that he finds worthwhile, Falkner says.

"I get to work with that middle-aged, nontraditional student who was a factory worker in an industrial zone that has unfortunately shut down over the last three or four years," he says. "We get to be a part of the process of providing them with a means to retool."

At CASC, about 30% of students are ages 25 to 65, according to the U.S. News & World Report. In fall 2019, the average age of undergraduate students at two-year institutions was 26.8 years, the U.S. Department of Education reports. This is a diverse student population to serve.

Motivations for pursuing a community college education later in life are varied. Some adult learners want to finish the degree they started but didn't complete. Others are making a career change and need to acquire new skills or update their skills and knowledge.

Falkner is exhilarated by the idea that the community college he presides over, the curriculum he helps shape, and the faculty he collaborates with are actively expanding the horizons for older students who are changing their career trajectories.

His overarching goal at CASC, he says, is to give these students an opportunity "to upscale and help provide a pipeline for a new means of success."


Flexibility in the Face of a Pandemic

Alongside these "typical" problems, leaders in higher education are also still grappling with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Enrollment dropped sharply and hasn't yet fully stabilized. Between fall 2019 – roughly six months before COVID-19 fanned out across the globe – and fall 2021, community college enrollment slipped by 850,000 students, according to the Community College Research Center.

As students struggled with the decisions of whether and how to obtain their degree during this unexpected challenge, the pause allowed pundits, newspapers, columnists and Americans more broadly time to seriously question the value, purpose and long-term implications of a college education. Was investing in college really worth it? How transferable were the soft skills colleges and universities so frequently tout?

Two-year institutions like CASC were not exempt from the arduous task of justifying their existence. At Carl Albert State College, the mission is to provide affordable, accessible and exceptional education that fosters student success. While CASC is one of the most affordable colleges in that region, helping prospective students see the value of a college education – any college education – is another challenge for those in higher education leadership.

"The national narrative has changed in the sense of what higher education means and its evaluation," Falkner says. "I think part of that is a fallout directly of COVID."

Falkner knows how transformative an education – and the degree or certification that comes with it – can be. Both the need and the difficulty of that message have increased in recent years. Strong leadership at community colleges is thus incredibly valuable and in high demand. And while COVID demanded increased flexibility and persistence, it's certainly not the only challenge students face. Asked what some of the most significant obstacles facing his students were, Falkner's response was immediate and unequivocal: "Real life."

Whether they are only a few years removed from high school or entering middle age, many community college students struggle financially. At CASC, Falkner reports, more than 85 percent of students receive Pell Grants, federal grants that are specifically for undergraduate students who need financial aid to pay for college. Struggling to keep up financially can make it difficult to pay tuition, thus jeopardizing students' ability to continue their college education. Economic struggles affect students beyond the cost of a credit hour: A significant number of CASC students, for example, don't have access to stable internet service, directly affecting their ability to learn online. Issues like these mean that Falkner must be flexible and adaptive as the college's president, closely attuned to student needs and limitations and willing to meet them where they are.

For such students, the transformative potential of a college education is enormous: The right two-year degree can vault them into financial stability and the middle class. This is just as true before and after the pandemic and is an important North Star for so many leaders like Falkner.

"Transfer rates are important, but another valuable piece of student success is … to try and get these folks employed in good high-level, quality jobs."

Jay Falkner, President, Carl Albert State College

Embracing Workforce Development at Community Colleges

The mechanism through which that transformation takes place is workforce development. In a paper titled "The Evolving Mission of Workforce Development in the Community College," James Jacobs and Jennifer Worth argue that the 1,400 or so community colleges in the country "considered as a group, are the best existing institutional candidates for a national workforce system in the United States."

Two-year colleges have dual objectives: to help students transfer to four-year institutions, where they can attain a bachelor's degree, and to provide them with the skills and training to establish themselves in a career field immediately after receiving their associate's degree. This is a focus unique to community colleges and to those in this job within education, and Falkner spends considerable time brainstorming ways to improve upon the latter objective.

"Transfer rates are important, but another valuable piece of student success is … to try and get these folks employed in good high-level, quality jobs," he says.

A significant part of his role in higher education leadership entails carefully examining CASC's program offerings and determining what modifications are needed to make them more effective at preparing students for specific career paths.

"We're doing more than we have ever done on the side of workforce development," Falkner says.

Community colleges prepare students for careers ranging from nursing and radiology to computer programming and law enforcement. If they are, indeed, our nation's preeminent national workforce system, then colleges such as CASC are critical components in ongoing efforts to keep unemployment low and living standards high.

For Falkner, preparing CASC students to enter the workforce in stable and fulfilling jobs "has to be what gets me up every morning," he says.


Putting the "Community" in Community College

Since becoming president of Carl Albert Community College in 2016, Falkner has grappled with everything from fluctuations in the surrounding job market and shifting professional responsibilities to the severe consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. What has propelled him forward through periods of anxiety, adversity and uncertainty is an unshakable drive to see the college's students prosper and thrive in the years after they graduate.

"Being part of individual education attainment and that journey, to me, is the core reason why I come to work every day," Falkner says.

One of the chief strategies he uses to achieve student success is connecting the skills and training his students receive with the needs and demands of the surrounding region of southeastern Oklahoma. Shaping this connection between CASC and the community, Falkner says, is a profoundly gratifying aspect of his work, one with the potential to benefit multiple parties and help build a more stable, economically successful region.

Falkner cites one initiative that exemplifies the ways that local communities and the two-year community colleges that serve them can establish and cultivate a symbiotic relationship with one another. In Oklahoma, nearly 10% of the population identifies as Native American. The state is home to 38 federally recognized tribes, including the Cherokee Nation.

During Falkner's ongoing efforts to form ties with surrounding communities, he began attending meetings with Cherokee Nation leaders and local business leaders. Through those meetings, he learned that, as businesses boomed and employment numbers increased, so did the need for child care. In other words, as more and more members of the Cherokee Nation left home for work every day, families were struggling to find child care.

While there were a lot of potential child care workers in the Cherokee Nation who could be trained through CASC's child development program, getting to in-person classes on campus was an impossible task for many.

Here was a logistical quandary that, to the right individual, also presented a powerful lesson on how to become a better leader. If CASC couldn't serve this group of potential students with their existing child development program, could the school use innovation and ingenuity to chart a course toward evolving that program?

For Falkner, the answer was a resounding yes.

With financial support from the Cherokee Nation, CASC started building virtual child development classrooms to serve the tribal members who couldn't make it to campus. The results were a categorical success for all parties.

"In a year's time, because of that collaboration, we have doubled the enrollment in the child development program," Falkner says.

CASC now offers six online programs in child development, including certificates and associate degrees. Through these online offerings, the Cherokee Nation was able to start building up its workforce of child care professionals, providing the human infrastructure necessary to support working parents in the community.


Community Colleges Need Agile, Transformative Leaders

In today's tumultuous higher education landscape, faculty and administrators are called upon to solve many barriers on the way toward both increasing enrollment and graduation rates. But for the prepared and eager, this type of challenging, prove-it environment in higher education leadership serves as a perfect opportunity for their skills, vision and professional agility to shine.

Community colleges across the country are constantly searching for experienced, well-trained leaders with a master's in education and doctoral degrees to work in education leadership jobs, such as administrators, deans and presidents. Leaders like Falkner not only focus on their institution's administrative duties, personnel management and fundraising efforts, but they also play an integral role in helping to improve the local and regional economy.

By shaping course offerings and curricula and bolstering their school's workforce development initiatives, these community college leaders are strengthening the pipeline connecting their institutions to local employers. It is a gratifying way to perpetuate a virtuous cycle between schools and surrounding economies, and community college leaders are the propulsive engines behind it.

Interested in becoming a community college leader? Explore the U of A Master of Education in Community College Leadership.

Online Learner Blog Home


Master of Education in Community College Leadership

The demand for community college leaders is rising. You can prepare for these administrative roles through this unique online master’s degree program, the first in the region to focus on the development and enhancement of community college leaders.

Program Page