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Montgomery College’s new president has a long to-do list: Increase the number of students finishing their degrees. Protect the school from state budget cuts. Prepare graduates for an increasingly tough job market. We’ll talk with Dr. DeRionne Pollard about these challenges and the role of Montgomery College in Maryland’s educational system.
- DeRionne Pollard President, Montgomery College
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn September of 2009, Montgomery College was in the midst of turmoil. The trustees had just removed its president, Brian Johnson, amidst the allegations of mismanagement and over spending. Faculty and students were upset. And many wondered who would come in and get Montgomery's community college back on solid footing. Fast forward more than a year and the school has a new president. One whose goal is not just to keep Montgomery College on track, but to make it the most relevant community college in the country. Her name is DeRionne Pollard. And she joins me now in studio to talk about her to-do list for Montgomery College. DeRionne Pollard, as we says, is president of Montgomery College, thank you so much for joining us.
DR. DERIONNE POLLARDThank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here.
NNAMDIYou were the head of Las Positas College in California. Is that how it's pronounced?
POLLARDLas Positas, yes.
NNAMDILas Positas. Were you -- when you were recruited to apply for this position, did you have any hesitation, given the turmoil that Montgomery College had experienced with its previous leader?
POLLARDI can't say that I had any hesitation. What I will share is that most organizations of this size and this complexity has had some challenge in leadership in its past. And I think that Montgomery College has such a phenomenal reputation across the country. It was just the natural fit for me. So, certainly, one knows that you have some work to do when you come in. There's an opportunity to help heal an organization, work with the community to make sure that they have -- and they continue to enjoy wonderful confidence in the organization. But I will say that that was a distraction for the organization. And now, we are -- we have shaken it off and we're moving forward.
NNAMDIWhat attracted you to Montgomery College? What, in your view, are the college's assets?
POLLARDWell, I think the thing that probably brought me to Montgomery College initially was certainly the phenomenal reputation it enjoys for its academic programs. You look across the board. This institution is doing what I would offer and lay mark work in biotechnology, engineering, certainly in our math and science, other science and English courses. So, certainly, the academic reputation it enjoys. The college also had a very strong student support service, where we actually are very intentional about working with our students to help them be successful. And then I would also say that college's fine work in advancement. One of the largest community college as in terms of its foundation its continued outreach into the community that the college has enjoyed a very strong leadership history, prior to the most recent -- continues to enjoy, I think, relevancy in the community. And for me, it was just a no brainer when I saw the position.
NNAMDIOur guest is DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College. Have you or a family member attended community college? How did that experience affect your academic and career path? Call us at 800-433-8850. What role do you think community colleges should play, both here and nationwide? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or e-mail to email@example.com. As we mentioned, Dr. Pollard, your goal is to make Montgomery College the most relevant community college in the country. What do you mean by that? How tall an order is it? And how far is Montgomery from that goal right now?
POLLARDHmm. One of the things I often say is I don't believe in playing small. And I think that any of us, if we have a true goal in life, should be able to articulate and be bold about it. So I would offer to you is that relevancy suggests that when a community needs you, when the students need you, when the very folks, who work with you and work for you, need you, you are being relevant if you're meeting their goals. I often hear a lot of folks say, I want to be the best community college or I want to be a good community college. Best and good is all relative. For me, the idea of being relevant suggests that you are in the right space, you're understanding and you're tightly coupled with your community.
POLLARDYou are doing things that help transport or transcend that community, help it take it to the place that it wants to go. And I think Montgomery College is on the right track for that right now. We've been very deliberate and engaging in President Obama's and Governor O'Malley's completion initiatives. We have accepted greatly the commitment to increase the number of Americans with a college degree. We have been very deliberate in looking at innovation in the classroom and identifying best strategies to help students meet their goals. And I'd also say that we are working very tightly with our community in particular as it relates to economic development to ensure that we are bringing the most relevant study programs there for the community. So I think that we are on our way. I think that Montgomery College is a phenomenal institution, and we are coming into the best parts of our self, I like to think.
NNAMDIMontgomery College is one of 40 community colleges participating in a national project to figure out what success means for two-year colleges in the U.S.
NNAMDITell us a bit about that and what your own definition of success would be in that context.
POLLARDYeah. I'm delighted that Montgomery College has been accepted as one of the pilot institutions for the Voluntary Framework for Accountability, an initiative being led by the American Association of Community Colleges. In short, what we recognize is that those traditional measures of community colleges are not ones that are adequately – or actually, I'd say measures of higher education best reflect community colleges. What we're seeing across the board is that if you look at us only in terms of the number of students who complete a degree, that's a very small picture of what we do. But the idea of looking at the number of students who transfer from our organizations prior to a degree, the number of students who have completed licensure exams, the number of students who have moved from developmental courses into college-level courses, looking at GED.
POLLARDSo what I am excited about this -- and I think I shared this a few weeks ago with Inside Higher Education -- is that this community college initiative is allowing us to define ourselves. I have been disturbed -- and I'll say this even when I did my dissertation -- at the number of people who have been working to define us. And they'll say, this is what the community college should be doing, and this is how you should measure the success of the community college. But it was not an opportunity, really, a place for us to articulate that ourselves. So the power, I think at this particular initiative, is that community colleges have come together. We're looking at a set of measurements to identify our success, and then we're willing to engage in the hard work of doing that, which very well may mean that we have to tweak those over time, we may have to ask some serious questions about our success, but at least we're defining it right now. And I'm delighted that we're a part of it.
NNAMDII was about to ask you, in general, what do you think success means for community colleges? But you seem, at least in part, to have answered that question already, and that is that if community colleges, in fact, define themselves then the measure of their success should be seen within the context of that definition.
NNAMDISo I'll ask a related question. Who should community colleges be serving?
POLLARDHmm. The community college serves the community. And I know that that sounds almost too simplistic, but what I would offer to you -- and I say this quite a bit -- that the idea of community in our phrase, in our descriptor, is not just something that's a name that was stuck there, has a very distinct purpose. The idea of success, really, is about meeting students where they are and transporting them to where they want to go. That's the ultimate measure of success. So some of our students come to us needing to complete a GED. Some of them need to learn English skills. Some of them need our -- clearly honor students who are looking to transfer. Some are coming to us because they've been disenfranchised within higher education itself and they're looking for opportunities to expand other educational and career goals.
POLLARDSo the idea for success -- and I think this is one of the challenges we're seeing with community colleges -- our mission is so broad that we're having -- the idea of having these very simplistic notions of defining of who we are is highly problematic. So again, I think it's important that community colleges would step up to say that we're gonna take the opportunity to actually create a system that measures us in the most effective ways possible.
NNAMDIDerionne Pollard is the president of Montgomery College. She is our guest. If you'd like to join the conversation with her, call us at 800-433-8850. If you're a student or employee at Montgomery College, what do you want your new president to put on her to-do list? (laugh) 800-433-8850. Let's start with Stan in Alexandria, Va. Stan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STANHi, Kojo. I just wanted to espouse the benefits of community college from my standpoint. I attended a community college in Dallas, Texas. But when I started -- and the whole point was is I wanted to get a four-year degree. However, when I started, I was 29 years old and I wanted -- I felt that being in the community college atmosphere with a lot more people who were closer to my age group made me so much comfortable getting started. Since a lot of people in my community college were not on the, you know, I guess the standard or typical life plan of beginning college when you're 18 years old. And I felt -- just that alone, the more diverse atmosphere of a community college as opposed to when I transferred up to the University of North Texas after my first two years, really helped me begin my college career.
NNAMDIAnd you like Derionne Pollard to comment on that. I find that particularly intriguing because he talks about his comfort level...
NNAMDI...in terms of the age group of the people with which he started -- with whom he started. To what extent do you feel that that is one of the attractions of a community college?
POLLARDYou know, I think the true wealth of the community college is the diversity students that we serve, that we don't have a traditional community college student. In fact, if you were to look at the demography of our particular institution, we have -- there is no majority culture within the organization. We are true reflection -- I'd like to think -- of the American fabric. We also have the average age of our student being in the late 20's. We see students who are coming to us who are highly talented and gifted. We have students who are coming to us with developmental needs. So we span the whole spectrum.
POLLARDAnd what I'd like to think is that every student who comes to this organization, whether they are looking at their faculty who are teaching, the support staff who are working with them, they should be able to see someone who can reflect their experience, someone who has an ability to connect with them. So I believe deeply, and if I can convey any message in this conversation today, that the potency and the power of community colleges is exactly what that caller made. We have the ability to significantly transform and change the trajectory of an individual. We can impact significantly the direction of a family. And we bring such wealth, intellectual, economic and so much more to a community that it's unbelievable to me.
NNAMDIWhen you talk about diversity, there are more than 175 countries represented in your student body.
NNAMDIThe United Nations only has 192 countries. (laugh) You're only 17 short.
NNAMDIWhat are you trying to do? Catch up with the U.N. here?
POLLARDYeah. That'd be glorious. (laugh)
NNAMDIBut more importantly, what are the opportunities and the challenges of serving such a diverse student body?
POLLARDWell, you know, I think certainly the opportunities of creating and preparing students to step into a world that is certainly far more diverse than any of us would have imagined it being. I think we're also helping them to understand the realities of that and the idea of cultural competency, hopefully having students develop a skill set that allows them to understand that difference is not something that should feared, but something that should be embraced. Understanding that as we sit down and have an exchange with each other that part of the discourse, I mean, we disagree with each other, but at the same time, there are many opportunities for collaboration.
POLLARDSo I think the opportunity of using this diversity to help students see themselves in a much more rich , more textured perspective, while also at the same time, helping them better understand the world in which we live in is significant. There are always challenges. You know, certainly you have folks who don't -- they come to a college campus and they've been in an environment, in their own family situation where he's been -- everyone looks like them, everybody's story the same as them, and to be quite frank, they can't understand why that's not the norm. So part of our experience, part of our job is to help folks come to that understanding and really spend time being very deliberate about that. As much as there may be some challenges, I reject that those are overwhelming. I embrace the fact that we have this wonderful diversity and we can do things phenomenally for our students and our community.
NNAMDIThey step onto a campus that in terms of diversity is just a one step behind the U.N.
POLLARDHow about that?
NNAMDIHere is Melissa in Washington, D.C. Melissa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MELISSAHi. Yes. I actually am a traditional college student and graduated -- or was. I graduated from high school and went right to a four-year college at UC Berkeley. But what touched me was that, in my junior year, it was clear that the best students in my class were, when I sought them out for study groups, were all transfer students from community colleges in California. And it was just very interesting to see how much more engaged they were than the typical college student. And I think that part of that was that they had gotten used to being in smaller class environments. And also, they never thought they were gonna be at Berkeley, and so they were wanting to make the most of the experience and were really -- they really set the bar high for the students who had even gotten in, you know, originally, right out of seniors and high schools. I was very impressed with those students.
NNAMDIWere any of those students, do you recall, from Las Positas College?
MELISSAI'm not sure, but California has -- probably. They have such so many good community colleges out there. It's very competitive even to go to community college.
POLLARDWell, I would...
NNAMDIDeRionne Pollard, what do you say to what she's saying?
POLLARDI appreciate the question, Kojo, because I will say that I feel fairly certain that a fair number of them were from Las Positas, given that it had the seventh highest transfer rate in the State of California for all community colleges. And certainly, we were one of the top 10 feeder institutions to Berkeley.
POLLARDBut what I would tell you about Melissa's comment, which, again, is so significant, there have been study after study that suggest that community colleges, our students do as well as or better than native students once they transfer, for a couple of the reasons that Melissa said. One, certainly, is the idea that you are in a small environment and you have the opportunity to interact with your colleagues and your faculty in a very distinct way. But I will also tell you that community colleges don't have teaching assistants. Most of our faculty are doctorally or master's prepared. They work -- they're subject area experts. They spend a lot of time preparing. And then you supplement that with the phenomenal support services that exist in community colleges to assist students in their academic pursuits, in their student services areas. So I would agree that our students do as well as. The key for us is to get them through the community college. And I feel that we are -- we're doing a very good job of that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Melissa. We move on to Thor in Washington, D.C. Thor, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
THORHi. I'd like to thank you for this opportunity, first of all. I'm a non-traditional student, having just come from the military, and going through online schooling right now. And I know that Montgomery College is running a pilot program for the Combat to College initiative. And I'm just wondering if you could talk a little bit on that and how successful it's been and how you see it developing.
POLLARDYou know, one of the things that, I think, makes community colleges so distinctive is that our success is really dependent on the genius of our faculty. And what I understand to be true -- as you know, I've only been at the college about five months, but I know that a group of faculty members came together and brought a proposal to the administration to say that we need to be looking at these students who are coming to us, who are coming back to the -- our country, to their land, after being in Afghanistan, working in Iraq and all these different places and saying, how do we help them be successful?
POLLARDMy father is a Vietnam War veteran, and I recall talking with him about these numbers of students who are coming to Las Positas College at the time, and about their experiences being so distinctly different. They would walk on campus, and we were doing a lot of construction. And I had a student say to me, you know, DeRionne, do you hear that piece of machinery? He said, every time that makes that clanging, banging sound, I recall an experience when I was overseas fighting for our country. He said, that's a very disturbing trend. I can always tell a military student veteran on campus by the way they walk. Their posture is very different. Their perspective is very different in terms of how they situated themselves.
POLLARDSo what I think is so powerful about that is that we had this faculty come together and say, hey, we know that these experiences are very different. Transitioning back into civilian life is something that's challenging. How do we help? So they came together and created this program, Combat to College, where they're actually pairing support services, physical education and recreation courses in such a way that they're working with students to help them understand what's happening to them, both emotionally and physically, and then be able to give them an outlet to address that.
POLLARDSo, again, I commend the faculty on that. I do know that we are, right now, significantly planning to ramp up our services to veteran students. In fact, we'll be forming a task force, this spring semester, that's going to be looking at the whole matriculation process, from beginning to end, for our veteran students and how we can be much more intentional, maybe even intrusive in their success stories at Montgomery College.
NNAMDIThor, did you notice that she lets her students call her DeRionne? She's got me calling her Dr. Pollard, okay?
THORI would be calling her the same thing. Old habits die hard from the military.
NNAMDIThank you. (laugh)
THORThanks very much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Thor. One of your goals is to raise the completion rate at Montgomery College. What percentage of students finish their programs now, and what would you like the completion rate to be?
POLLARDRight now, we have a completion rate of about 14 percent of students complete their associate's degree within three years who are attending full-time. And then we have about another 32 percent who are completing their -- who transfer to different institutions within the State of Maryland. So we're a little bit under 50 percent completion rate. That, fortunately or unfortunately, makes us actually quite comparable to many of our community college partners across the state.
POLLARDWhat I would tell you in terms of a goal, we are working to identify -- we have told both the governor, and we're working with the federal government as well, that we are wiling to increase and we'll be increasing by two-thirds in the State of Maryland by 2025 the number of students who complete their associate's degree or transfer to an institution. And this goes back to the voluntary framework of accountability.
POLLARDYou know, you look at those numbers -- a 32 percent and a 14 percent -- they become highly problematic because those 32 percent of students who are transferring to a four-year institution aren't counted as success stories for community colleges. So the idea that this voluntary framework is actually giving us a different set of measures that allows us to, again, reflect the diversity of the students that we serve and the different ways in which they come to us, and the different ways in which they leave, is a very important thing.
NNAMDII wanted to get to a hot button legislative issue this year. It's the DREAM Act, and whether the children of illegal immigrants should be allowed a path to citizenship through college or military service. It's my understanding that Montgomery College has been sued over this issue. Why? And where do you stand on it?
POLLARDWell, we have received a notification. I haven't actually received the actual suit yet, but we have, you know, certainly seen the press reports and know that the suit has been filed. It typically takes three weeks to a month, actually, for it to arrive to the institution. And this suit is alleging that our organization is not being, I guess, uh...
NNAMDII should mention that the suit has been filed by Judicial Watch, which is a government watchdog group...
NNAMDI...well known in Washington for its conservative leanings.
POLLARDSure. What we -- what our policy and practice is at Montgomery College is that if a student is a recent graduate of the Montgomery County public school system -- recent as in within the last three months -- excuse me, three years -- we do allow them to have the lowest level of tuition payment and come to Montgomery College. After it's been the three-year mark, they have to demonstrate any number of different requirements in order to be admitted into the organization based on different residency rates. What I would tell you, I find this lawsuit very interesting for a number of reasons, and I'm not gonna comment on a lot of them because we...
NNAMDIWe only got about a minute left.
POLLARDAll right. What I would tell you is that I want -- and, again, I have a 4-year-old son, and I try to explain to him this reality. And I say, what would it be like for you to grow up in a community where we do not provide access to education for everyone, that we don't understand the inherent problems if we do not do that? They are, to me -- it becomes very problematic when we look at it, saying that, we don't want to provide and we should not provide education to a group of people who are living in our community. That's something that I reject. And I think that, as an organization, we are following the law to the best that we understand it. And more importantly, we look forward to sharing and speaking our day in court.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Of course, at Montgomery College, there are a lot of working moms with children...
NNAMDI…and you happen to be one of them. Sorry I couldn't get to Brett's call, but wanted to say that her whole family went to Montgomery College and that they needed it.
NNAMDIDeRionne Pollard, thank you so much for joining us.
POLLARDThank you. It was a pleasure.
NNAMDIDeRionne Pollard is president of Montgomery College. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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