dotEDU Episode 14: Community Colleges Bring Dreams Within Reach


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired Jan. 27, 2020

Now more than ever, community colleges are playing a vital role in the postsecondary space. Helping students earn credentials, degrees, and beyond, community college leaders are finding they need to adapt to changing needs. Former President of Montgomery County Community College Karen Stout, now president and CEO of Achieving the Dream​, talks with hosts Jon Fansmith and Jonathan Turk about the challenges this newest generation of community colleges face.​

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Achieving the Dream ​

Guided Pathways
Achieving the Dream 

Persistence and Completion​​
ACE resources

Focus on Student Success Increases Well-Being
Inside Higher Ed | Feb. 22, 2018​

ACE Engage®

2-Year colleges discussion group
ACE Engage®

Tennessee Promise

Tuition-Free Degree Program: The Excelsior Scholarship ​​


 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education podcast from the American Council on Education, and in my opinion, the best higher education podcast from the American Council on Education. I am your host, John Fansmith, here in ACE government relations office and I am joined by not my regular co-host, Lorelle Espinosa. So I guess this would make you my irregular co-host.

Jon Turk [00:00:27] Something like that, yes.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:27] Irregular sort of is a good general descriptor for you, I think.

Jon Turk [00:00:31] I appreciate that.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:31] Yes. And as always, I haven't even mentioned your name yet, John Turk.

Jon Turk [00:00:35] Yes. Remember, we're gonna try to make Turk a thing.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:38] Right? I was just about to mention that and especially yelling it out as an exclamation--Turk!

Jon Turk [00:00:42] Exactly.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:44] Trying to make that happen. It does not seem to be happening despite my efforts to shout your name at people in the building. But I have gotten some visits from HR. Anyway, how have you been doing? It's been a while since you've been on.

Jon Turk [00:00:57] It has been. No, it's been good. Conference season has wrapped up. Traveling has kind of slowed down. Just getting back in the groove of things after the holiday break. Really pushing the hard core on our race and ethnicity in higher education project. We're gearing up for the release of our second report later this year. So we're trying to get all of that work done.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:16] When is that? Do you have a release date set?

Jon Turk [00:01:19] It's a bit in the future still but we are right in the throes of finishing up the data analysis and working on the reports.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:26] And it's nice for you that the conference season has ended right in time, about a month out from our annual meeting to go on. So it's a real lull for you. Break in the effort. Well, we have a subject that I am very glad you're here...joining me to discuss how we're going to talk about community colleges.

Jon Turk [00:01:44] Well, I mean, that's my favorite topic. Everyone knows that.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:47] It is. Well, you know, and you're saying that, you're laughing a little bit, but considering the volume of work you have done on community colleges, much of which I've had a chance to see before we've put it out, laugh all you want. It's a very true statement. Luckily, we're not just joined by you, but we're gonna be joined by Karen Stout, who is the president and CEO of Achieving the Dream and is also the president emerita of Montgomery County Community College. So we have two experts in the room on community colleges and we're going to discuss a wide range of issues. And I, as always, am looking forward to getting better informed and educated up on these issues. But we will be back with Karen just after this break.

Jon Turk [00:02:28] And welcome back. So today we're joined by Karen Stout from Achieving the Dream. Karen, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Karen Stout [00:02:35] Well, I'm a first-generation college student in some respects. I watched my father graduate from college when I was in the fourth grade. So he got his bachelor's degree at night, eight years, working hard. And I did my homework with him. But I'm the first in my family to go right from high school and into college. And I know we all have different definitions of first gen, right. But I understood then the transformational power of education. And you fast forward through college into my first community college position, a position where I was rejected three times--.

Jon Turk [00:03:15] Only three times?

Karen Stout [00:03:15] Upon application. Only three times. And it tells you a litte-.

Jon Fansmith [00:03:18] This was the same position?

Karen Stout [00:03:19] Same position [crosstalk]. My mom, it was my mom, she was clipping...Now I'm dating myself, but she was clipping classified ads out of the local paper for an admissions adviser at the local community college.

Jon Fansmith [00:03:33] All right.

Karen Stout [00:03:35] After being rejected three times, I had a call from the person who would become my supervisor who said, "Are you open to coming in for an interview tomorrow with the search committee?".

Jon Fansmith [00:03:46] Just enough time to prepare.

Karen Stout [00:03:47] I said,. "Yes, I have." And left that Friday with a job at a community college and a career and a purpose and passion that has never left. That particular college, you know, there's a lot of connections. And I think the connections really illustrate the value of community colleges and also why it is so hard to evaluate or to put a metric on our work. That particular community college, I worked for 10 years, my mother went back, did not have any college experience, went to that college to gain a skill so she could get her first job when I went away for college. I took classes there when I was trying to move from my bachelor's degree in English into a MBA program. And I had to take economics and accounting and all kinds of other prerecorded courses back at that time, which they required.

Jon Fansmith [00:04:46] And which you sound very excited about.

Karen Stout [00:04:49] They were very helpful for my work as a community college president. And my one nephew just finished his bachelor's degree, gained credits at that same local community college. My other nephew earned dual enrollment credits at that particular community college. My father ended up doing some instruction in their continuing education program--same community college. So it's tough, you know.

Jon Fansmith [00:05:15] That's an amazing series of connections.

Karen Stout [00:05:17] It is. And community colleges have never left me and I've never left them. And I think that's what really makes us very unique. And that's what's fueled my passion for advocating for community colleges.

Jon Turk [00:05:30] I mean, I think I counted maybe five or six different functions or different roles that...This particular community college served very different roles for different people. I think that some of the absolute, if I made a gush here for a moment, that's part of what really makes this sector so valuable.

Karen Stout [00:05:46] It is. I mean, I coached at a field hockey camp there. I had my first date at the community opera there in high school.

Jon Fansmith [00:05:54] So now we're up to eight connections.

Karen Stout [00:05:56] But if you go into any community with a community college and you start to talk to...And we would do surveys when I was president at Montgomery about how many connections you have as a citizen with your local community college. It is amazing the ripple effect that a college, that a community college has in a community.

Jon Fansmith [00:06:15] Well, community college, right. I mean, it's a great example of just how true that is.

Jon Turk [00:06:20] So before we kind of make a transition into your role at ATD, I believe your connection with ATD started with your role as president, right, at Montgomery County Community College. Can you talk a little bit about your time in that role and kind of that transition?

Karen Stout [00:06:35] So I started at Montgomery County Community College as president in 2001 before Achieving The Dream started as an initiative with Lumina Foundation funding in 2004. Montgomery was one of the 2006 cohort colleges, so we were very early into Achieving the Dream. There were seven Pennsylvania community colleges that were selected and funded to come into achieving the dream. For me, at that point in my presidency, I was at year 5. I had been through one strategic plan that was about building connections with the community and we were moving into another strategic plan that we called, "Putting Learning First." The work of Achieving The Dream really helped me as a leader at Montgomery to bring some substance to what we meant by that, by putting students in the middle of that learning first agenda. And I was hooked on the work of Achieving The Dream, I was hooked on how the tools from Achieving The Dream helped me to build stronger engagement of faculty around student success in specific courses and specific programs and how it offered me as a leader a safe place for experimentation. At that time, the student's success work was perceived as a fad.

Jon Turk [00:07:56] Which is kind of incredible [crosstalk].

Karen Stout [00:08:01] Yes, so the network that ATD offered of other colleges also engaged in experimentation really helped me as a leader create, I think, a stronger culture of innovation and just this focus on student success, which was so important. And I became very involved in ATD nationally when we were doing some leading work. We earned the Leah Meyer Austen Award in 2014. And I believe Achieving The Dream is an absolutely important organization in continuing to catalyze the work around student success. We're moving into another wave of the student success reform work. And of course, the market, so to speak, of the student success reform is much bigger. At one point, it was just Achieving The Dream. So we are definitely in a new generation of work. But what I think makes ATD unique and fits me personally as a leader is that this is really reform from the practitioner-level up. It's not reform being pushed into a college. It's being led on the ground, in the field. And I think my experience at Montgomery has really helped me to give ATD a voice and those doing the work on campuses a voice.

Jon Fansmith [00:09:27] Yeah. And I'll say, you know, I work in the government relations side here in Washington. And you see so many times federal policy pursues ideas that policymakers think would be great solutions for campuses, even if they have never been tried on a campus or they didn't come from campuses. So it's actually really refreshing to see things that have been driven at the campus level, have been shown to work, demonstrated and then replicated across. It's, you know, almost sort of a necessary antidote to some of these ideas about how do you fix education. Everybody has ideas about how to fix education without necessarily having practical experience in education. And it actually segues kind of nicely to what I want to ask you about next. You know, there's all this effort around what do you do in terms of affordability or what do we do in terms of improving skills or preparing a better workforce and things like that and federal policies, lots of interests and lots of ideas about how to do this. But I think, you know, you touched on the idea of the role community colleges play in their communities, the sort of unique proposition. I should also add, I grew up in Montgomery County. I used to...I learned to ride a bike in the parking lots of Montgomery County Community College. And in fact, just last year, my dad was part of an art exhibit at the...And I forget the name of the beautiful gallery space on the campus.

Karen Stout [00:10:41] It's the fine arts building. Yes. It was an old art barn that was renovated. We really wanted to keep the feel of the barn because that was...the campus was a dairy farm. Thank you.

Jon Fansmith [00:10:55] Yeah, it is gorgeous.

Karen Stout [00:10:57] That was one of its...Building buildings as a college president is one of those tangible outcomes that you can kind of claim success. But building them with a sense of sustainability, which that campus has and this feeling that students are first is really, you know, a hard thing to do. And I think we did do that in that particular building especially.

Jon Fansmith [00:11:23] It really resonates as you walk through. Sorry. That was a total sidetrack. I got off. What I was trying to lead you to is a question about talk a little bit more...I mean, so we've covered a little bit that all these different interactions a community college has with the people in the community. But talk a little bit more sort of about the unique value of community colleges within the higher education space, not just as sort of centers of their community, but also the unique role they play.

Karen Stout [00:11:48] Well, we know from some of the data from the National Student Clearinghouse that I think close to 50 percent of baccalaureate degree holders have some community college credits on their transcript. So I think that begins to show you a little bit about the importance of community colleges in this whole ecosystem of higher education. Then you put on top of that that, you know, nearly 50 percent of all first time students started at community college and the majority of students who are first-generation low-income students of color, working student-parents, started a community college.

Jon Fansmith [00:12:26] So essentially everyone other than the traditional 18 to 24 year old residential four-year, right?

Karen Stout [00:12:32] Well, that's an interesting. That's interesting because when you look at the demographics recently and in community college enrollment, our colleges are getting younger and the average age of their student. And we are seeing more traditional students come to our campuses now. They're not always fully moving through to degree completion. And some of that's because of the growth, the explosion in dual enrollment where community colleges are really playing a significant role in dual enrollment. But it is interesting because we could have a whole nother conversation on the cliff that we're facing with adult students on community college campuses, the enrollment cliff. Not sure whether it's related to the strength of the economy or not. I'm becoming a contrarian on that.

Jon Fansmith [00:13:25] And John probably is already aware of this, but I actually haven't heard. So is there a concern that...I mean, a cliff obviously implies you're going to see a significant drop off in enrollment community colleges in the near future?

Karen Stout [00:13:35] We are seeing across the country drops [crosstalk].

Jon Fansmith [00:13:40] Well, I know there's an enrollment decline across but is it significantly steeper at the community college level?

Karen Stout [00:13:45] It's steeper in adult students.

Jon Fansmith [00:13:48] Oh, in adult students.

Karen Stout [00:13:49] And it is steeper in community colleges if you look at the IPEDS data. What the IPEDS data, the IPEDS data includes, in the four year college enrollment patterns, any community college that offers baccalaureate degrees as four year colleges. So it's a complicated question because of the way our missions are beginning to blur and some may overlap.

Jon Turk [00:14:19] Right. We're losing what a universal definition of what a community college is.

Karen Stout [00:14:25] Yes. There are many forms of community colleges. And I'm more of a purist around the use of the word community in the name because of how I started to talk about the community college where I started my career. But I still think you can be a community college and also offer baccalaureate degrees.

Jon Fansmith [00:14:51] And this of the things you're talking about, population is getting younger, but also these different pathways for students who are coming to community colleges and sort of the maybe move away from a traditional conception of the educational role of community colleges. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Karen Stout [00:15:11] The different programs that enable community colleges to serve just about every educational need in their local community. And what I mean by that is there's the central associate degree and that can lead to transfer or can lead into employment. But before that associate degree, there are there are programs that are pre-associate degree programs and then there are programs that are...I'll even call them post-baccalaureate degree programs where you see a large number of adults coming back to a community college to collect credits or a certification in something that will upskill them professionally. And then there are the vocational programs, the apprenticeship programs that community colleges also offer. So that's both the beauty of community colleges and sometimes I think what makes us misunderstood as a sector.

Jon Turk [00:16:23] Actually, I want to interject just one thing real quick, because you mentioned apprenticeships. And I always anytime...I have an opportunity to state this, because I think it gets thrown out in the public lexicon and we hear about political candidates and folks that talk about, "What we need is less higher education. We need more apprenticeship programs." But people tend to forget that it's often higher education institutions that are offering apprenticeship programs, that are structuring those programs. And so I think it's always important to just make a mention that when folks say, "Well, we don't need more higher education. We need more plumbers. We need your mechanics. We need more of this, this, and that." Where do you think those people are getting those those educations? They're getting it at community colleges.

Karen Stout [00:17:04] Right. I think this whole idea that a post-secondary credential will be required and is required now for 60 to 80 percent of our population to get a job that leads to a living wage is really important. And we do hear people say, "Well, everybody doesn't need to go to college." But just about everyone will need some type of post-secondary credential and colleges are offering those opportunities.

Jon Fansmith [00:17:33] It may be accurate to say not everybody needs a B.A. degree, but everybody needs some post-secondary education. And yeah, I see your point, Jon. I mean, you see it time and again, especially in Washington, this idea about alternative paths away from higher education. And I think that is sort of willfully blind to where those skills actually come from.

Jon Turk [00:17:53] I mean, something else...And just going back a moment when we were talking a little bit about some of the enrollment trends. So I had a conversation with a community college president in the Midwest, kind of in a rural area, who was talking about how his institution now...was about a third of its total enrollment was made up of dually-enrolled students. So these are students that are in high school that are taking credits through their local community college. So even when we talk about community colleges and we often talk about the non-traditionally aged students at community college, we are seeing growing segments of the more traditionally aged and even direct from high school students into community college. And one has to begin thinking about how does the community college have to adapt to this kind of changing group of its enrollment, even if it's going back to the more traditionally-aged students.

Karen Stout [00:18:39] The dual enrollment opportunities are significant for community colleges. And I have also heard from colleague presidents that as much as a third of their new student enrollment would be dual enrollment students. I think the challenge becomes, for us as leaders of of community colleges, to make sure that those dual enrollment courses are clustered into pathways that lead to something significant, that we're not just offering dual enrollment in the high schools to offer dual enrollment, that courses are crafted in a sequence kind of way that can fit into a program ideally at the community college. So ideally, you want dual enrollment students to matriculate into your community college, but if not that they transfer into a pathway at a bachelor's degree-granting institution.

Jon Turk [00:19:40] So you've said a bit of a magic word here a couple of times. The word of the day, if there was today, would probably be "pathways." Do you want to talk a little bit about guided pathways as really one of the main interventions that we see ATD championing around this?

Karen Stout [00:19:53] So the guided pathways movement, it's interesting, it has emerged on the shoulders of some other movements and learning along the way around student success. So some of the early, I'll call them the early failures of Achieving The Dream, I think have led to the guided pathways framework. Some of those early failures for ATD were around letting a thousand flowers bloom. Really helping colleges look at their data and then design interventions to try to address the gap that the data was illustrating for them and then not figuring out a way to help those interventions be scaled and sustained. Now, guided pathways helps to create a framework that does support colleges in scaling and sustaining and organizing interventions. So it kind of builds on top of a lot of ATD's work. And ATD's, Achieving The Dream, has been a significant contributor to building the guided pathways movement and many of our Achieving The Dream colleges use the guided pathways framework to organize their student success work. They use other frameworks, too. So it's one of many frameworks. But I'll say guided pathways is really taking hold. And a lot of colleges are adapting the guided pathways model to their particular context and needs.

Jon Fansmith [00:21:23] Can you explain...Jon is probably already familiar with this, but a little bit for an individual campus what using the guided pathways framework looks like? Is that a series of steps that are taken out? What is the implementation of that framework?

Karen Stout [00:21:36] So there's four pieces of the framework. So working to design systems to get students on a path,  to clarify the path, to keep students on the path, and then to ensure that students are learning. So those are the four pieces--

Jon Fansmith [00:21:53] And part can be multiple paths depending on...Towards an AA towards a post-bachelors or something?

Karen Stout [00:22:01] They can, but I'll say the central piece of guided pathways is really about making sure that on the front end students understand what options there are and they can look at those options and clearly see the career opportunities, the labor market value of the opportunities, the time to degree if they do certain things. So it's a lot more front loading the student experience.

Jon Fansmith [00:22:28] So they have a very clear understanding of what they're going for--.

Karen Stout [00:22:29] Very clear, very clear. And many of the Achieving The Dream colleges and the colleges engaged in pathways are taking apart their programs and rebuilding them in ways that ensure that they are aligned with the labor market needs and also clearly aligned with transfer needs. So you see some ...not streamlining, but you will see some of the programs move from what may have been 68 or 72 credits into 60 credit pathways, because that's the associate degree.

Jon Fansmith [00:23:08] Seems very common sense, but yeah, it's obviously a valuable adjustment.

Karen Stout [00:23:13] And then the metrics that underlie guided pathways are really important, early momentum metrics, to try to encourage students to complete 24 to 30 credits in their first year. Not necessarily that everybody has to register for 15 credits each semester. And that's what gets really interesting about the innovation some of our colleges are moving forward with, where they're deconstructing the semester format so that students can accumulate more credits faster.

Jon Turk [00:23:45] Can you say a little more about that? Because, I mean, Jon was kind of talking about this and how some of these ideas kind of take hold in Washington, but you see some interventions that are out there that are built around the idea that all students have to enroll in at least 15 credits a semester. You were just talking about moving those early momentum measures of at least getting closer to 24 to 30 credits across the whole year. So when you say deconstruct a semester, what does that mean?

Karen Stout [00:24:07] Well, the traditional fall/spring, in order to get the 30 credits, you have to go 15/15.

Jon Fansmith [00:24:13] Full time each semester.

Karen Stout [00:24:16] This is why it was so important when I was a college president, when the first round of summer Pell came out, that you could work to create a continuous experience for students, that they would be enrolled year-round, and that would take the pressure off of the number of credits required in the fall and the spring because summer became one of the semesters. But some of our colleges are going beyond that. So Odessa College, for example, has moved to eight-week continuous semesters. I don't know what they call them, maybe terms or sessions. And they're finding that I think 88% of their sections offered are offered in that eight-week format. So they've scaled it. It's just not nested within a traditional semester, which is what a lot of colleges do. They've scaled it.

Jon Fansmith [00:25:12] A lot of federal policy actually...A lot of financial aid determinations are based around the idea of a Spring/Fall/Two semester.

Karen Stout [00:25:17] That's right. That's right. So we are seeing some progress from that. You know, it's mixed because some colleges have moved to that and they aren't seeing the same results as Odessa. So there are bundles of interventions that have to be scaled and that are pulled together that becomes the secret sauce.

Jon Turk [00:25:36] And it goes back to what you were saying earlier. I think part of what a network like ATD is so useful for is helping to bring attention to a variety of interventions. You have some key frameworks that outline how you think about ordering or selecting certain interventions, but still recognizing the fact that Campus A is going to have a different context than Campus B, and that you will have to tweak some things from here to there to make it work.

Karen Stout [00:26:04] And Campus A may have different levels of capacity than Campus B. So one of the things that really is important in our work with our ATD colleagues, we really work on helping colleges build capacity in seven fundamental areas. And those colleges that are able to build those strong fundamentals plus adopt a framework like guided pathways plus use some type of unique lever or theory of change, usually it's something that the leader is very committed to and is unwavering in their attention to, they're the ones that are beginning to see the accelerated results. They're turning the flywheel, so to speak, using the Jim Collins good to great language.

Jon Fansmith [00:26:50] And so you have this amazing network with ATD. You obviously beginning to, I think, do well in the process of identifying useful interventions for campuses to implement. What else do you have on the agenda? What's coming up? Future projects, things you're working on now?

Karen Stout [00:27:08] A couple of exciting things at Achieving The Dream, in addition to really focusing on this whole college transformation, we're working beyond just transforming colleges...A couple of other things that are going on that are new for Achieving The Dream, and I think are important to the field at large not just community colleges: one is our work with open education resources. We'll be releasing in the next month or so a research report on three years of work with 39 colleges that have built zero textbook degree pathways. There are some significant findings from that research and we'll be continuing that work.

Jon Fansmith [00:27:50] And those 39 institutions are across the spectrum of the sector?

Karen Stout [00:27:54] They're all community colleges. They're all community colleges, mostly in the ATD network, but not all of them. We are doing some important work with our tribal colleges and universities, supporting them in building capacity. We recently partnered or merged with Gateway to College, another national network, another nonprofit that's helping Achieving The Dream to build out some supports for our colleges in K through 12 partnerships and dual enrollment. Especially for the most vulnerable students in the communities that the colleges serve. We're working on some new metrics work in Florida, trying to push this idea that completion is a progression metric, not the end in and of itself.

Jon Fansmith [00:28:43] Can you just talk a little bit more about that? It's an interesting idea.

Jon Turk [00:28:47] I mean, my mind's going to all of the performance-based funding [crosstalk] with Florida, thinking about all the different metrics and we try things and we try it again and we go back and forth. You know, Florida is always an interesting case example.

Karen Stout [00:28:59] Well, completion is a metric that to me is an inside baseball metric for a college. It really doesn't measure student return on investment. And  it's not looking--.

Jon Turk [00:29:10] Actually, I was a little...I didn't say because I was just like, "No, actually that's exactly right."

Karen Stout [00:29:16] It doesn't really measure community return on investment. So we're trying to move from this completion arc to the student return on investment arc to this community return on investment arc. And it's a philosophical framework ATDs working with now, but we're hoping that this work in Florida might help us build that out a little bit.

Jon Fansmith [00:29:35] A whole lot harder to quantify. .

Jon Turk [00:29:38] By no means do I want to get in the nitty gritty of that, but when you're thinking about student return on investment, I'm assuming that is more than just financial return, right?

Karen Stout [00:29:46] It's well-being. A lot of well-being factors. We did a report two years ago with Gallup and Strada on measuring what matters. And we have a hint of where we want to go with this work based on that piece. And then, you know, Achieving The Dream is also very deep into this work around holistic student supports, which helps. It's technical assistance, coaching supports for our colleges to help them bundled together academic and nonacademic supports for students. Part of the guided pathways framework, part of the work around getting students on the path and keeping them on the path. It also blends with a lot of the work from the Hope Center on basic needs, helping students with basic rights, front ending that, identifying what those basic supports might be, and then designing to support students with securing those basic needs/supports.

Jon Fansmith [00:30:47] Yeah. And we've had previous podcast episodes about campus mental health and other things that are sort of...we now have a much better understanding of how important they are to things like does a student come back to school? Do they complete? I think certainly we'll probably explore some of the issues around food insecurity on campus. So it's a really great approach. This is all being considered in that light. So a lot of those resources will be available on our web page. You know, I asked you what else you had going on and we started with transforming all of higher education. And then you went on an expansive list of other projects you're working out that, at least from where I sit, kind of comprehensively touch on all of the interactions a student might have with the campus. Obviously, you have a lot of work ahead of you. So we're going to let you get back to that. But before you go, was there anything else you wanted to bring up with our audience or just raise or add to what you've already said?

Karen Stout [00:31:42] I'd just say that, since I'm here with ACE and you do so much important work around advocacy, what we're learning from Achieving The Dream around student success...We are not a policy shop at Achieving The Dream, but we can inform, I think, a lot of the emerging legislation and give it a lens from the student success perspective and what we're learning. And we're happy to be doing that and recently became part of the secretariat.

Jon Fansmith [00:32:15] For those who don't know, the secretariat is a group of the heads of different higher education associations that meets to talk about what's going on in Washington, a whole range of other things.

Karen Stout [00:32:24] So I'm hoping to bring a new voice to that group around--.

Jon Fansmith [00:32:28] That is fantastic. I did not know you had joined. That's great. And I will say, I sort of started by saying this point, but as somebody who does engage on the advocacy side, having actual functional working examples of what should be driving federal policy. So I imagine you and I might be having some conversations going forward. Frankly, the whole moving away from completion thing is this worth a long conversation, a lot more exploration. So, you know, I would say for people who are listening, if you want to continue this conversation, we actually have on the ACE Engage platform a two-year colleges discussion group. And there's other relevant resources available on ACE Engage. So check that out. But I most want to say thank you very much, Karen.

Karen Stout [00:33:10] Thank you.

Jon Turk [00:33:11] Thank you.

Jon Fansmith [00:33:12] This is a really great conversation. Like I said, looking forward to continuing this off a recorded format and going forward. We'll be right back after a break.

Jon Fansmith [00:33:25] And we're back. And, you know, I always sort of say this, to the point that people who listen to this podcast might think it's a cliche, but.

Jon Turk [00:33:34] Let me guess, you learned a lot?

Jon Fansmith [00:33:35] I did. That's exactly right. I learned a lot. And, you know, it probably does come through the fact that this is a continuing educational experience for me. Maybe ACE can give me some sort of credit for it.

Jon Turk [00:33:47] You could evaluate it. yes.

Jon Fansmith [00:33:50] We have some opportunities for that. But it was incredible conversation. Karen, obviously very engaging, very interesting. And just again, she's left, but thank her for being on. I think one of the things that sort of came up in that conversation is the sort of different pathways and sort of the new thinking about higher education and how that manifests in community colleges.

Jon Turk [00:34:11] Yeah. I mean, what I always get struck by is, it is kind of a cliche, but people always say, "Higher education doesn't change or higher education is slow to change." And I think having a conversation like we did with Karen and learning more about what a whole segment of higher education is doing and not to mention the fact that she was talking about programs and initiatives and linkages between K through 12 and higher education and the linkages between community colleges and four-year colleges as well. I don't know how you could listen to that and not see that colleges and universities are actively changing and they're changing for the better.

Jon Fansmith [00:34:44] And changing in fundamental ways. And I think it's an interesting point, too, because we are approaching the Iowa caucuses.

Jon Turk [00:34:53] Yes, we are.

Jon Fansmith [00:34:54] I bring this up with a...I don't know what do we call you, a transplanted Iowan? An Iowan?

Jon Turk [00:34:59] Yes.

Jon Fansmith [00:35:00] An Iowan by birth?

Jon Turk [00:35:00] Yes. An Iowan afar right now.

Jon Fansmith [00:35:03] An Iowan afar. That's sounds so literary. I enjoy that.

Jon Fansmith [00:35:09] And one of the big things, one of the big policy issues in the Democratic primaries is free college, right?

Jon Turk [00:35:15] So can you believe that higher education now is a top level topic in a presidential, a national election right now?

Jon Fansmith [00:35:22] You know, it is a funny. So I've been doing government relations for ACE for about 15 years now. And when I started, I remember how shocked we all were when President Obama made the idea of expanding Pell Grants a central part of his platform in 2008. And that was huge. And now we're at the point where every candidate has to weigh in on the idea of college affordability. Particularly I think what's been interesting is this idea of free college. And, you know, it's a concept. Everybody has a different idea of what that means.

Jon Turk [00:35:54] And yeah, I mean, it's definitely a concept. And I think that the beginning line is, what does anybody mean by free college? Because I mean, I think you see some of the plans or you hear of what some folks are proposing and free college is "free tuition and fees." Students wouldn't have to pay for tuition and fees to attend the institution. Doesn't really talk about all of the other costs associated with going to college. And so is that free college if we're just talking about tuition and fees? I don't know. But it's certainly the concept of free college is certainly on a lot of the candidates' minds. And frankly, it's a lot of states' minds. We're seeing a lot of programs in that space.

Jon Fansmith [00:36:36] Yeah. And most of those, speaking of community colleges have been at the community college level. I think there's been a wider acceptance of the idea of free community college at the state level.

Jon Turk [00:36:45] Yeah. I mean, Tennessee kind of kicked things off with with the Tennessee promise, that program that was really aimed at direct from high school, first time college students to attend a Tennessee community college, tuition- and fees-free. But it's starting to expand now, too. I mean, Tennessee, again...Tennessee seems to be a leader oftentimes in a lot of the higher education policy space, state level space, but now designing programs that are aimed for adult and returning so non first time students. Tennessee reconnects them in that program, but we're seeing some of those programs spread to other places. 

Jon Fansmith [00:37:24] And I think New York with the Excelsior program is probably the only state wide four-year free college program out there.

Jon Turk [00:37:32] I mean, the Excelsior program is unique in that it's targeted for any of the four-year level, SUNY and CUNY, institutions there. But yeah, I mean like there's...we could get into the weeds on all of these and there's a lot of semantics. There's a lot of details to these programs. I think, you know, the biggest thing that I think will need to be really discussed critically moving forward are, you know, really how these programs are financed. A lot of the programs we see right now in practice, so we're talking about Tennessee, we were talking about the New York program, they're all what we would call last dollar programs. So a student first has their Pell Grant applied, any state or other federal grant aid that they would have, and then those programs cover what's left.

Jon Turk [00:38:25] Exactly. And so those questions again about how do you pay for all of the other expenses of college.

Jon Fansmith [00:38:31] And I think one of the other...No, no. You know, there's that, which obviously has a big impact on how much these programs would cost at a national level. The other thing, and it has come up somewhat in the debates is, you know, who is benefiting from these programs and who should be benefiting? And I think that's another one we tend to look at. Certainly the current federal financial aid system is very much geared towards need. And, you know, there are philosophical arguments. If you believe education at the post-secondary level is a right, then free college makes sense regardless of your family circumstances. If you are looking at this as a tool to incentivize low-income families or low-income students to access and complete college, well, then maybe you should have income restrictions. Maybe it should phase out based on family. There's a lot of...And it gets thorny because it's not just, as you pointed out, how do you pay for it, the nuts and bolts of implementing a program, but some of these philosophical considerations about what is the appropriate program, what goal are you trying to serve?

Jon Turk [00:39:32] Exactly.

Jon Fansmith [00:39:33] So we'll find out basically, obviously, I think you and I can safely say that the entire outcome of the Iowa caucus will be dependent on candidates college proposals.

Jon Turk [00:39:42] I think that's right.

Jon Fansmith [00:39:43] Sole determining factor.

Jon Turk [00:39:44] Right.

Jon Fansmith [00:39:44] Very little else happening in America's public space now that people care about. Obviously, that's a joke. But, you know, it will be a factor and I think will be interesting to see. I should say thank you, Jon, for joining us today.

Jon Turk [00:39:57] Still not making Turk a thing, I see.

Jon Fansmith [00:39:59] You know what? As much as I want to do it, it does seem a little aggressive. That seems a little weird.

Jon Turk [00:40:04] It's that German last name. It just naturally sounds kind of aggressive.

Jon Fansmith [00:40:07] We have that in common. You have a nice short German last name. Fansmith doesn't really, you know, get yelled out that easily. It doesn't really even get pronounced that easily. So anyway, you can find all the resources I mentioned on our web site at and you can listen to this podcast on that Web site or also on Apple podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, we are actively seeking your thoughts, contributions, ideas, savage critiques, whatever you would like to offer us. And you can give them to us at our email address at We look forward to those. I want to thank everyone again for listening and hope you enjoyed the episode. ​

About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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