At Roxbury Community College, President Valerie Roberson has a spirit that belies her relatively soft-spoken exterior. “I’m the youngest of three,” she said. “I hated to lose but in my family, no one let up on me just because I was the youngest. My family would go to the bowling alley, I’d get a couple of gutter balls and I’d be in tears. My dad was a middle-school assistant principal, and he was relentless in giving me instruction how to bowl better.”
Over at Bunker Hill Community College, President Pam Eddinger’s personal background belies her Ivy League undergraduate and graduate education. “Sometimes I’m in these alumni groups at Barnard and Columbia where people talk about their experiences, often unconsciously from some kind of privileged background,” Eddinger said. “Then I’ll start talking about how my mother was a seamstress and my dad was a waiter and how I didn’t come over to the US from Hong Kong until I was 11 and you see the shock come over people’s faces. Their guard goes up like there’s something wrong. But to me it’s a joy to have been able to see life from many angles.”
The spirit of hating to lose as well as the ability to see life from many angles are precisely what these schools needed when Roberson and Eddinger became their new presidents last spring. Roxbury has been chronically mired in scandalous mismanagement, resulting in only 39.5 percent of students graduating or transferring within six years.
Bunker Hill had far more stability under its former president Mary Fifield, with high first-year retention rates, but its six-year graduation or transfer rate of 47.1 percent remains far from satisfactory, especially in a state with well-documented gaps between job needs in its technology and health care sectors and available local talent.
“People know what a Northeastern University is doing or what is happening at BU,’’ said Paul Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “You want to get to the point where you can’t have a meeting about the future of Boston without RCC or Bunker Hill in the room.”
According to Grogan and other business leaders, Roberson has already begun to lift RCC’s spirits, from spiffing up the grounds and healing frayed relations with both community organizers and the business community to launching a restructuring of the college and continuing an audit of its past finances.
It is not the first time she has attempted to turn around an institution. A decade ago, she was appointed interim president of Olive-Harvey College, a community college in Chicago. The school was in such disarray that there was talk of closing it. The faculty went on a three-week strike and the nursing program was on administrative probation. Students complained that retention efforts were nonexistent.
Everyone should have hope that a new era for community colleges in Massachusetts has just begun.
After firing some full-time faculty, Roberson said she worked on stabilizing faculty relations and boosting scholarship and honors programs. She increased Olive-Harvey’s profile in the community through theater and culinary arts programs and sponsoring high-school choir competitions and poetry slams. During her five years as president, two of Olive-Harvey’s transfers went on to become valedictorians at state colleges.
That was in addition to her work at several other community colleges, where she mastered the nuts and bolts of accreditation and built training partnerships with major corporations. But in an interview in her office last week, she candidly said the need for healing at Roxbury Community College was like nothing she’s ever seen. For instance, when she was invited to talk to the “Friends of Roxbury College” over the summer, an activist group that has protested conditions at the school, her half-hour time slot ended up becoming two hours of questions and answers.
“So many people have an attachment, whether they were alumni, children of alumni, people who founded the college, but they felt like they hadn’t been heard,” Roberson said.
But if there was ever a time for community colleges and their communities to be heard, this is it. Governor Patrick and the Legislature came together last year with a fresh infusion of funding as well as incentives for future funding, including better graduation and transfer rates and an alignment of degree programs to close the skills gap in the state economy. Major companies and the Boston Foundation want to increase the level of internships. Dual enrollment programs with high school students are well underway at Bunker Hill and are getting started at Roxbury.
But community colleges have rapidly evolved into far more than skill schools. As the price of four-year private colleges spirals past $50,000 a year — and tuition, room, and board at UMass Amherst is $23,000 — less-expensive community colleges take on more ambitious students. Some may even aspire to graduate education, but choose to conserve their resources by living at home while studying.
Yet there are still far too many students in remedial courses. Instead, the colleges must find a way to upgrade instruction and add higher-powered math and English courses better suited to the career goals of incoming students. The state is also trying to bring some sense of alignment to courses at community colleges and four-year state universities, so students can more easily transfer their credits. That lack of portability is one key reason, Eddinger said, that the Commonwealth has lower community college graduation and transfer rates than many other states.
“Nothing is more discouraging to me than hearing a student say, ‘Oh, I have to repeat,’ ” Eddinger said. “Everyone talks about a mobile economy. Well, we have many students who for whatever reason need to move so they need to be able to move their credits with them.”
Eddinger’s own mobility leaves as much room for optimism as Roberson’s. A decade ago she was a top administrator at MassBay Community College, at a time when the school formed technology partnerships with several automotive companies. She left in 2005 for Moorpark College in Ventura County, Calif., becoming its president in 2008. While she did not have to turn around the institution, her fine-tuning of student opportunities and partnerships in the health, video-game development, arts, and computer technology areas paid obvious results. The graduation and transfer rate during her tenure reached 64 percent in 2010, tied for 25th best in the nation, according to CollegeMeasures.org.
“The thing people have to understand is that community college is not students just studying a skill over here and students preparing to transfer over there,” Eddinger said. “If I produce a technician who has no creative thinking skills, and doesn’t know how to learn any further, then what are we producing? The old idea that we’re just trade schools is repugnant to me.”
To hear Eddinger speak with such vision should give everyone hope that a new era for community colleges in Boston and Massachusetts has just begun.Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.