Retiring Community College President Discusses Challenges

One of the state’s worst kept secrets is the strength of its community colleges — 19 of them. But they suffer the same challenges of two-year colleges nationwide. Difficulty in recruiting students. Difficulty in raising graduation rates. The County College of Morris‘ Dr. Edward Yaw knows something about that. He’s the longest serving president of a community college in the state — 30 years. Now retiring. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: Thanks for being with us.

Yaw: Thank you.

Williams: What’s the biggest challenges community colleges face?

Yaw: Well I think you’ve already hit it. Enrollment is something that all of our colleges are suffering with. We’re looking at demographics that suggest there are fewer students graduating from high school. That will be the case for the next several years. So recruiting new students and then of course retaining the students that we have to graduation and to improve our graduation and retention rates is another challenge that we all face.

Williams: Graduation rates for community colleges hover at about 29 percent. You’re 27 percent. Four-year institutions are more like 59 percent. Why is that?

Yaw: Well, there are a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is we’re not always sure why students come to community colleges. They come for different reasons. Sometimes they are just coming one year, sometimes they are just coming for one course. So not all of the students register initially are intending to graduate and so it’s important for us to look at their intentions as well as the final results.

Williams: So most of them are not the kids who are coming out of high school planning to go two years and then go to a four-year institution?

Yaw: Well we have lots of those kinds of students. But oftentimes students just come with the idea that they’ll only stay for one year and then transfer at the end of one year. Of course we prefer to have them stay for the full two years but that, of course, is their prerogative.

Williams: Your colleagues have said in Union, community colleges want to offer four-year nursing degree. Should community colleges be in the business of offering four-year degrees?

Yaw: Well I think it’s quite possible and certainly the state regulations have provisions for that in the sense that the process for getting new programs approved include the possibility of colleges going beyond their programmatic mission. Which is what Passaic and Union County colleges are planning to do. Layered over that is the issue of nursing itself and the requirement that many hospitals have. They want their students to having a BSN. So, Union and Passaic are responding to both of those circumstances.

Williams: The vote lost by one vote, right?

Yaw: By one vote. It was by the presidents council  but it will be passed on anyway to the secretary of higher education who will probably assign an outside consultant to take a look and make recommendations to her. She [secretary] has the ultimate authority to approve or not approve these programs.

Williams: What do four-year colleges offer that two-year colleges don’t?

Yaw: What do four-year colleges offer that two-year colleges don’t? Well, many of them offer baccalaureate and graduate degrees, which we do not offer. I always tell our new students that we have everything but the dorms. We have a robust student life program, we have wonderful academic programs, wonderful faculty teaching in those programs, wonderful faculty and staff. What we do not have is dormitories and that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Having run a dormitory at one point in my life I know about that.

Williams: There are some problems, it’s hard.

Yaw: Yes.

Williams: President Obama has suggested, even proposed, officially offering two years of free college to everybody. How would that affect recruiting and retention?

Yaw: It’s hard to tell. First of all there are many components of that. It would have to be approved by the Congress, which is difficult to get anything these days approved by Congress. Each individual state would have to buy in because I think the proposal also includes a matching contribution from the state. Quite frankly, I’m not counting on that happening between now and Aug. 31 when my tail lights leave for the last time.

Williams: You know most presidents of colleges don’t stay as long as you have. They stay for four years. That was your plan, I understand. Thirty years. Why’d you stay?

Yaw: Well, that’s pretty simple. First of all, the students are wonderful and I always have exciting stories, success stories for our students. In addition, we have a wonderful staff, I’ve a wonderful group of people who serve on my cabinet, they’re each outstanding in their own right across the state of New Jersey. Frankly, the colleges when it started in the late ’60s was able to attract really outstanding people to be both professionals and teaching faculty and that tradition has continued.

Williams: Is the president’s proposal going to bring attention to community colleges?

Yaw: I think it already has. I think that’s one of the things we’re grateful for because we’re now part of the conversation. With the current political situation, free college has been a part of the mantra of several of the candidates for both Republican and Democratic side who are seeking the presidency. So, we’re part of the conversation and I think that’s important. It gets us into the conversation more and more people thinking about college, realizing the tremendous value that community college has for students, particularly for the first two years. We always talk to parents and families about tuition, talking about coming to us for two years, transfer to a much more expensive four-year institution. Getting the same degree in four years for half or even less than half of the price.

Williams: What do you see in the future? you’ve seen so many changes since the very beginning of CCM. What do you see?

Yaw: Well I see again a continuation of efforts to improve graduation rates and retention rates. Student success is the cornerstone of our strategic plan and I expect it will be for many years to come. I don’t personally see a lot of new construction, a lot of new buildings, we don’t anticipate major increases in enrollment, even with free tuition, should that come to pass. I don’t see that as having a dramatic impact on our enrollment, certainly not right away. I think the other thing that has changed so much in the 30 years that I have served as president on the County College of Morris is the use of technology. There’s not one discipline that hasn’t been touched by technology in some way and that’s going to continue and that changes every year now. That’s always very exciting, something I have been interested in so it’s been fun to be a part of that.

Williams: All right thanks very much Dr. Yaw.

Yaw: Thank you, it’s been my pleasure.