"We are the community's college": with a sharpened focus on its central mission, Anne Arundel Community College has earned both local and national accolades

"We are the community's college": with a sharpened focus on its central mission, Anne Arundel Community College has earned both local and national accoladesFor many organizations, the call to write a mission statement yields a document that is placed in a desk drawer while business proceeds as usual. But, when Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Md., wrote its mission and vision statements, they became a compass to keep the school focused on its first priorities: serving students and community by embracing learning in all forms.

As a symbol of this success, the National Alliance of Business, a 5,000-member organization that includes Fortune 500 companies, chief executive officers, educators and business-led coalitions, named the AACC Community College of the Year for 2001. The NAB cited Arundel's dedication to improving student achievement and linking curriculum to business needs. AACC is just the fourth college in the nation, and the first college in Maryland, to gain this accolade. College officials will be quick to tell you that the award is a happy result of a clarification in focus, not a goal in itself. The real focus is learning, and the school has put this goal at the center of its efforts.

Sharpening Focus

Just five years ago, the Arundel mission statement began with the words, "With teaching as its central mission." Today, it begins, "With learning as its central mission," a change in focus that is more than semantic. "The learning paradigm has changed," says Martha Smith, AACC president. This new paradigm embraces two goals: meeting the needs of the community and ensuring students' success."

Shifting the focus from teaching to learning means that the community college had to get in touch with the consumers of its educational product--potential students and potential job markets. First, the definition of a potential student was broadened to include nearly everyone in Anne Arundel County, the school's service area. "There is a continuum of lifelong learning," says Smith. "[We] stay in touch with all the people who could be learners." This includes full-time and part-time students and those who are taking non-credit classes as well as those earning credit. Arundel has blurred the lines between these groups, refusing to draw arbitrary distinctions that may prevent a student from accessing an opportunity simply because he or she is in the "wrong" category.

Community Involvement

The college is even willing to break out of the confines of a traditional academic calendar to serve its students. In an abstract written for the National Council for Continuing Education and Training, Smith and co-author Andrew Meyer, AACC vice president of learning, describe this response to student demand as an imperative. "We no longer have the luxury of telling stakeholders, legislators or customers [much less students] that they'll have to wait until the next semester before they can receive the training or learning they request," they wrote. This refusal to be limited by traditional schedules or enrollment definitions allows the community college to shift its focus to the pursuit of learning in any form.

The other component of this new focus is increased involvement by area businesses, who are asked to help shape AACC's curriculum to better prepare students for jobs with those companies.

Meyer cites the example of a partnership with Northrop Grumman in which Arundel provides training for the company's workforce, a partnership that has drawn more than 36,000 enrollments in customized, on-site employee training courses. The program means $1 million in funding each year for the college.

It is important to "maintain currency in the curriculum," says Meyer. AACC accomplishes this by asking for community involvement in aspects of college operations that are traditionally closely guarded.

For example, the Center for Applied Learning and Technology, currently under construction, is partially the result of input from area business leaders who gave their opinion on building configuration as well as the curriculum that will be taught. Businesses have even assisted in identifying instructors, sometimes tapping their own employees as ideal teachers for a given subject.

Asking for business input is one way that the school remains responsive to the needs of both employers and students. The college has established a series of program advisory boards in disciplines such as telecommunications, computer technologies, health care, paralegal studies and architecture that draw on real-world needs and experiences when developing a curriculum.

By involving the future employers of their students in educational decisions, AACC can be sure that its programs address certification and credentialing requirements, make use of technology common in the field and include class projects that transfer skills into the work environment.

Entrepreneurial Vision

Responsiveness is more than just words in a mission statement. When the CEO of Ciena Corp., a local optical networking company, claimed that the school was failing to train workers for the technical workforce, he got a phone call from President Smith, inviting him to come talk about his company's needs.

The pair cleared up the misunderstanding regarding what training Ciena employees needed and what AACC could provide, and the college has now developed the curriculum to meet the needs of Ciena and its current and future workers.

AACC makes use of a Learning Response Team, a group of upper level college officers and ad hoc members that meet every two weeks to ensure that AACC is responding to student and community needs and taking advantage of opportunities. This team looks at all new initiatives that are being considered by the college and assesses them to ensure congruence with the mission and feasibility of execution.

Once an idea has been tapped for execution, it is treated in an entrepreneurial fashion. An academic taskforce of sorts, called a Learning Design Team, writes a business plan. The plan addresses approach, project requirements, timeline and budget. And special attention is paid to providing cross-disciplinary opportunities and coursework that is both credit and non-credit. For example, the college implemented a hospitality, culinary arts and tourism institute that includes associate degree and certificate opportunities, international internships and courses for personal interest.

Change has not been limited to the curriculum. Smith has tinkered with the organizational structure of Arundel, overseeing three restructurings in seven years. The most recent revision, instituted in the fall of 2000, created Meyer's position, vice president for learning, out of two existing instructional vice president positions. "We created one chief learning officer and one learner support officer," Smith says.

This last position, vice president for learner support services, brings AACC's focus on the success of the student to all the out-of-classroom activities of the college. This officer "make[s] sure learners have the information they need when they need it," says Smith, further smoothing the path between learner and learning opportunity.

AACC has just one other vice president, who addresses finance, planning and human resources. This streamlined organizational structure contributes to a nimbleness that is difficult to find in more top-heavy institutions.

Measures of Success

If success can be measured by enrollment figures, then AACC is doing something right. Although community college enrollment has been fairly stagnant in the state of Maryland during the past five years, AACC has posted significant growth during this same period. Between 1996 and 2000, the headcount of students enrolled for credit has increased from 17,287 to 18,375; the non-credit enrollment has increased an equally impressive amount, from 24,343 to 32,099. All told, 50,474 people took some form of coursework at AACC in the year 2000, a significant number in a county of 485,800 citizens.

Students will find it increasingly easy to choose AACC after January 2003, the slated completion date for a 64,000-square-foot building in the western part of Anne Arundel County. This will bring the total number of AACC locations to three, a move that is designed to make education more convenient for students. "We take access for students very seriously," says Meyer.

And AACC can count on the backing of the state in their endeavors. While some states push their community colleges to convert part-time and non-credit students into full-time enrollments, AACC has found Maryland to be supportive. "Maryland fully endorses the concept of the community college's mission," says Smith. They have even provided incentive and challenge grants, an important thing for an institution that receives a third of its operating revenues from the state.