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Lessons from the Pandemic: The Urgency of Reinventing the Community College Business Model

by Christopher Shults & Randall VanWagoner - February 28, 2022

The global pandemic forced colleges to face the reality that traditional business models are neither sufficient for ensuring continued operation nor, more importantly, designed to improve student learning and success. The community college business model implores colleges to utilize the urgency of the moment to intentionally redesign their operational models to enhance the student value proposition and establish educational experiences that prepare students for academic, life, and career success.

It has only been in the last 20 years that there has been sustained social scientific research in community colleges. The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers college, Columbia University was an earlier pioneer, and the Achieving the Dream network brought the intricacies of bona fide research to institutional research offices of community colleges.  The two commentaries this week come make apparent how our different positions within institutions greatly impact our view of problems and solutions. What administrators and college leaders think aboutby necessityis often quite different than what faculty and staff do. This does not mean that there cannot be ways to bridge and create possibilities for collaborative work, but it is often not easy to do so. While the two commentaries dont necessarily answer this conundrum, they reveal how some of these differences manifest in what we see, and how we respond to what we see. Each of these commentaries emphasize the nuances of institutional research at community colleges, one viewing metaphorically community colleges as a business, albeit a social one, incorporating the language and modes of thinking of the business model to the community college context. The other piece reveals the types of research questions that come from inside the classroom with direct interactions with students and makes an emphatic case for the inclusion of community college faculty and staff voices in what is studied and how. We need those who are trained at quantitatively assessing educational effectiveness in community colleges and we need those who are trained to capture the qualitative experience of community colleges students. Both are essential if we are to fully understand what it means to succeed in these institutions. And rather than being at odds, we should create avenues of inclusion for all of these voices.

This COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and laid bare systematic inequalities. It also provided substantial evidence that few colleges possess the organizational structures and approaches required to nimbly pivot or deal effectively with transformative change. And although we find ourselves in the tempest and dealing with enrollment declines and fiscal deficits, community colleges are bound to the mission of improving the lives of our students and service areas.

Higher education was undergoing substantial change pre-pandemic, and traditional management, educational, and budgetary approaches were increasingly misaligned with reality. Proprietary institution enrollments were growing, decreasing tax support was straining budgets, and changing student expectations were challenging higher education norms. Despite these factors, many colleges resisted change. The pandemic, however, thrust change upon our institutions and necessitates reflection on how our institutions operate, educate students, and support communities. As the social unrest during the pandemic accelerated equity issues in, and shone a brighter light on, inequalities in higher education, the role of community colleges in advancing a more just and equitable society was magnified. Community colleges must thoroughly evaluate and potentially redesign the student educational experience for both effectiveness and greater equity. In short, we need to evaluate our business models.


The business model is a framework that guides operations, strategy, and budgeting. It prioritizes understanding and providing exceptional, unique value to those being served. By adopting the social business model approach, community colleges must work to maximize financial slack (profit) for investment in the key resources that provide an extraordinary educational experience for students. And while a corporate model seeks to extract as much revenue as possible to increase profit shared among the few, the social model seeks to increase financial resources for enhancing the student value proposition. The community college business model (CCBM), as identified in Reinventing the Community College Business Model: Designing Colleges for Organizational Success, is

an intentionally designed operational framework developed to enhance organizational effectiveness (student success) through the provision of an optimized student value proposition represented by an exceptional educational experience. (Shults, 2020, p. 9)

The CCBM contains four elements that establish a comprehensive and systematic framework for assessment, evaluation, operations, strategy, and fiscal management. The faculty, staff, and administrators tasked with reimagining and reinventing our models must understand these elements, and consider impacts and lessons learned from the pandemic as they intentionally design for a student experience that directly benefits students through enhanced learning and improved student outcomes.

The student value proposition represents the benefits students accrue by attending the college. Model effectiveness depends on the ability to understand student needs, solve problems, and meet expectations. Recently, the staggering depth of student food and housing insecurity has been revealed and requires a deeper understanding of who are students are (The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, n.d.). Failing to build a model that addresses basic needs and provides pathways to careers that improve life circumstances neglects the fact that social mobility and economic inequities are social justice issues. One college validating the power of the student value proposition is Amarillo College, which, through deep analysis and reinvention, better understood and met Marias needs. Their culture of caring helped tripled the three-year graduation rate and increased access to more equitable wages (Shults, 2020).

The second element is key resources. Human, physical, and intellectual resources are the most important institutional assets for enhancing the value proposition. Human resources include faculty, staff, and even students; physical resources include facilities, space, and technology; and intellectual resources include partnerships and tacit knowledge. Substantial literature and evidence confirm that these resources, especially faculty and staff, are correlated with delivery of a powerful value proposition. Higher education is a human-labor-based industry, and appreciating, valuing, supporting, and caring for faculty, staff, and students, which should be done for purely humane reasons, create virtuous cycles associated with tangible improvements to student and institutional outcomes (Cameron, 2003).

All organizations, profit or nonprofit, build or deliver products and/or services. The product produced by community colleges is the educational experience, not the credential, and faculty, staff, administration, students, and select partners must collaborate in its development, evaluation, and enrichment. Through intentional design/redesign and evaluation of institutional mechanisms (departments, curricula, educational and student support offices), processes (teaching, advising, counseling), and structures (assessment, planning, compliance), the stage is set for an improved student journey.

The model must also consider the profit formula, which establishes sufficient financial margins for strategic deployment of fiscal resources in service to the student value proposition. Our institutions must reject butcher knife cost-cutting measures and instead use strategic pruning and innovation to reduce expenditures, increase revenues, and redeploy fiscal resources. It requires intentional redesign of the budgeting process, with a focus on funding activities, services, initiatives, and programming that improve student learning and success. To be blunt, this is a difficult ask in our current environment. Our institutions have been financially decimated by the economic and enrollment impacts of the pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated, not created, a difficult funding environment. Even with substantial deficits and bleak financial projections, innovation and evolution cannot wait.


Shifting models requires organizational culture change, and the pandemic challenges our colleges to intentionally nurture a culture focused on student success. Unfortunately, too frequent transitions in the role of community college presidents and vice presidents make meaningful, lasting change difficult to attain under such churn. Administrative stability, with the right leadership, creates the conditions for the psychological safety needed to develop trusting relationships.

To establish trust, effective leadership must be recognized, empowered, and leveraged at the student, faculty, staff, and administrative levels. College boards must be engaged in the process to minimize distractions that create management instability and spark discord. Presidents must develop accountable, high-performance senior teams that model open, empowering, and courageous leadership. Last, but certainly not least, faculty and staff must embrace a growth mindset that welcomes continuous improvement and greater accountability for enhanced and less disparate student learning and outcomes (VanWagoner, 2018).

When people trust each other and believe in the leadership, they are invested and engage in leveraging their talents to advance the mission. With increased engagement, faculty and staff commit to finding new and better ways of doing things. To make better decisions, they also need more information. Investments in institutional research and data analysis, especially when the data are disaggregated, support a culture of inquiry and evidence-based decision-making. The result is accelerated organizational performance and a virtuous cycle of continuous, intentional changeall of which feed the transition to a new business model.


Many factors have increased the urgency for and necessity of reinventing our models. Corporations and philanthropic organizations have been expanding their reach. Accreditation agencies have established new regulations and are providing greater leeway toward and support for educational and pedagogical innovation. Business and industry are increasingly focused on evidence of specific skills and abilities rather than traditional credentials. The list of existing, emerging, and expected influences on the community college mission, operations, and role goes on and on.

In considering reinvention of the CCBM, community colleges should, at a minimum, address the following questions:


Who are the primary student populations that will be served over the next decade, and how will the needs, problems, and expectations change?


How has the value proposition in a hybrid/online environment changed and how does the college need to change to adapt?


How must primary roles and professional development/support for faculty and staff change within a hybrid/online model?


How must colleges reconceptualize and redesign physical space to support student learning and success?


How will departments, curriculum, majors, and degrees change within this new reality?


What pedagogical models and approaches must be developed, grown, and leveraged to enhance teaching in this new environment?


What do advising, career development, tutoring, counseling, and other support services look like in this transformed environment?


Given disinvestment in higher education, what will be our primary financial sources?


How will relationships with the corporate and nonprofit sectors evolve? (Shults, 2020)

Answering these questions, challenging conventional thinking, looking outside higher education for innovation, and empowering faculty and staff will assist in model reinvention.

The impact of technology will not allow higher education to return to the way it was in the before times (pre-COVID). Additionally, our institutions have historically placed a greater focus on enrollment than student success, as we often failed to effectively address basic needs and downplayed employment, career development, and career exploration. The need and opportunity exist to redesign our institutions and meet emerging student needs, solve as-yet undiscovered problems, and exceed expectations. The leadership and expertise that exist within our institutions must be recognized and leveraged. We must look within and outside higher education for the approaches and strategies that will improve the student educational experience. We must make these changes and evolve, or our inaction will create an opportunity for others to make the choices for us.


Cameron, K. S. (2003). Ethics, virtuousness, and constant change. In N. M. Tichy & A. R. McGill (Eds.), The ethical challenge (pp. 8594). Jossey-Bass.


The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. (n.d.). Research. https://hope4college.com/research-and-resources/research/


Shults, C. (2020). Reinventing the community college business model: Designing colleges for organizational success Rowman and Littlefield.


VanWagoner, R. (2018). Competing on culture: Driving change in community colleges. Rowman and Littlefield.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 28, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23993, Date Accessed: 3/25/2022 10:45:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Christopher Shults
    Borough of Manhattan Community College
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER SHULTS, Ph.D, is the Dean of Institutional Effectiveness and Strategic Planning, Middle States Accreditation Liaison, and Chief Strategist at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, a 2021 Top 10 Aspen Community College Excellence Finalist. In this role, he chaired the strategic planning process that resulted in BMCC’s 2020-2025 strategic plan – Taking What Works to Scale, which was the culminating activity of the College’s intentional redesign work as an AACC Guided Pathways college. Dr. Shults holds both the Doctorate and Masters in Higher Education Administration with an Organizational and Behavioral Management concentration from the University of Michigan and a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from Morgan State University. He regularly publishes, presents, and consults on issues of institutional effectiveness, planning, and leadership; has co-created and co-led development programs for senior administrators and faculty both locally and nationally; and is an advisory board member and affiliate faculty member for the Ed.D program in Community College Leadership at New Jersey City University.
  • Randall VanWagoner
    Mohawk Valley Community College
    E-mail Author
    RANDALL VANWAGONER, Ph.D., is currently the President of Mohawk Valley Community College where he has served since July 1, 2007. His book, “Competing on Culture: Driving Change in Community Colleges” provides insight on how organizations can thrive in uncertain times. He is past chair of the New York Community College Association of Presidents and serves on the national Policy Leadership Trust for Jobs For the Future. For the past several years, he has been the co-facilitator of the national Strategic Horizon Network for community colleges – a group of nine community colleges in eight states that brings teams of faculty and staff together twice a year around the country to learn about disruption, vibrant cultures, and equity outside of education. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in higher education leadership from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and held administrative positions at community colleges in Ann Arbor, Denver, and Omaha prior to his current role.
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