Illumination by Modern Campus

Michael Baston (Cuyahoga Community College) on Redesigning the Community College Experience

February 16, 2023 Modern Campus
Michael Baston (Cuyahoga Community College) on Redesigning the Community College Experience
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Michael Baston (Cuyahoga Community College) on Redesigning the Community College Experience
Feb 16, 2023
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Michael Baston to discuss the ways students are redefining the higher ed ecosystem and how community colleges can become lifelong learning partners. 

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On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Michael Baston to discuss the ways students are redefining the higher ed ecosystem and how community colleges can become lifelong learning partners. 

Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Michael Baston, who is President of Cuyahoga Community College. Michael and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the ways students are redefining the higher ed ecosystem and how institutions can become lifelong learning partners. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:02): Michael, welcome back on the Evolllution Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you.

Michael Baston (00:05): I'm so happy to be back here on Evolllution.

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:08): Hey, man. Hey, I'll tell you, it's, it's been an interesting bit of a roller coaster for you since we last spoke. When we last spoke, you lived in New York and you now live in Ohio.

Michael Baston (00:19): Yeah. It's a different place than the way I was before.

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:22): It's like a little bit. How's the transition been?

Michael Baston (00:25): Well, you know, I never thought that I would live outside of New York. And having found myself now in the great state of Ohio, in the Midwest, I have to say that it is definitely agreeing with me. The pace is agreeing with me. The freshness of the food is agreeing with me. We don't have rush hour. We have rush 20 minutes. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So I am <laugh>. I, I've kind of really got into the swing of things here and I'm, I'm enjoying it very much.

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:55): I tell you, I mean, it's, it's funny you mentioned that We my wife and I moved from Midtown Toronto which is where our offices are to a town called London in southwestern Ontario. Very, very similar transition from being sort of at the heart of one of one of the great cities to quiet on farms. If, you know, if you need to go out at five, you wait till about five 15 instead. <Laugh>,

Michael Baston (01:22): I literally can get to my office in about eight minutes from my apartment. So I am, I'm absolutely loving it. I really am.

Amrit Ahluwalia (01:31): Well, you know, it's interesting you think about the course of your career and, and where it's brought you to to Tri-C College Now. I'm curious about how you've seen the community college landscape across the board transform over the past 10 years or so.

Michael Baston (01:45): Well, you know, we spent a lot of our time in the initial phase of community colleges focusing on an access agenda. How do we get more people into college that ordinarily would not have that opportunity? How do we ensure that they have access in a meaningful way? And then within the last decade, we've spent so much time thinking about completion. You know, what is it that happens to get students not only in the institution, but through the institution and onto the next step of their career? I think now we are really beginning more with the end in mind. And so you see many more community colleges thinking deeply about what is the kind of experience we need to design for students based on the end goals that they have. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And so completion is not enough. It is more about what is the sort of journey? What is the direction, what's the trajectory that that person wants to go through? And so then how do we, as they begin the institution, think about that trajectory and engage in that career exploration throughout the entirety of their educational experience so that they're in the best position to be what I call opportunity ready. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, are they able to really make a decision of whether today they're going to be an employee or an entrepreneur?

Amrit Ahluwalia (03:12): You know, it's interesting you make that point because it's one of the things that, yeah. Being in the non-traditional education space, we talk about a lot. So the question of attainment or completion is as a marker of success, of fail or failure for the institution, in many cases on a credential isn't necessarily what the learner's enrolling to, to earn that the, the learners is enrolling to learn. And occasionally there's, there's a credential involved with that. But when we think about the way that performance metrics are built, when we think about the way that funding is being distributed, they tend to intersect with these metrics that we've put on ourselves. How do you create a flexible post-secondary ecosystem that's designed for students to swirl when we're, we're in a financial environment that doesn't really support that

Michael Baston (04:00): We're not creating the system. The user, the learner is creating the, the decision. Because now a generation Z person in higher education is making the decision as to whether they're going to go through a traditional route, through an alternative route. They're making a decision. If, if credentials of value are the ticket, do they want to get that through LinkedIn or do they want to go on YouTube videos to learn things? Are they going to, so we have to understand, particularly in higher education that the way in which learners want to learn what they want to learn, the modality the length of time the kinds of things that they're interested in, all of that is changing. And if higher education is to continue to be relevant, particularly to these succeeding generations of students who look at the world in a very different way, then it has to examine itself. It has to examine the experiences it provides, it has to actually have the level of agility to meet the speed of change and the new students that will continue to come through the pipeline.

Amrit Ahluwalia (05:06): Absolutely.  I'm curious as well, you know, you, when you arrived at Tri-C and you know the moment I said Yep. Mike Mike's gotten a Tri-C was there was an article came out. But the headline is this, I'll read the headline. Sure. Tracy, president Michael Baston wants to redesign the community college experience, address students skepticism about return on their investment.

Michael Baston (05:29):Absolutely.

Amrit Ahluwalia (05:30): Welcome to town. So let me ask you, you know, when you think about that the two parts of that, of that sentence start at the top, what do we need to change in terms of the community college experience to make it more relevant to the communities that are being served and the learners that are being served? How do we redesign the experience?

Michael Baston (05:50): Well, first I spent the first hundred days of my time here listening. Instead of deciding what changes needed to happen, I spent the time listening to the people to whom change would be done and through whom change would be possible. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So I spent many hours with faculty, staff, students, but also external community members, elected officials, business leaders, people in the community for whom the K to 12 system, our healthcare system, many of the different systems that are dependent upon a strong a college. And so in those listening and that kind of discussion, I learned, for example, at my institution that we need to do three specific things. These themes continued to be amplify, amplified internally and externally. Number one, we needed to build a culture of clarity. What we know is that our systems, our structures and our strategies are not always clear to those we are seeking to support whether it is the student or business or industry.

(07:03): So how do we build this culture of clarity? Will we do it in two ways? Number one, we redesign the student experience. And so how do we design a student experience that enables the student to be in the best possible position to learn not only the knowledge that they will need, but to also to develop the skills they need to navigate the complexities of the globally evolving world. And then the other piece of this work, and that's why I say it's three, one is built a culture of clarity, but two, it is redefined the student experience. The third thing we learned was this idea that we have to strengthen the value proposition of higher education. When there are alternatives to the educational offerings we have, if we are not clearly able to articulate the value proposition that we offer, you will see less and less people taking advantage of the opportunities we can provide.

(08:08): And so that means we've got to be able to make sure the students can get an academic programs that upon completion, lead to employment that provides family supporting and sustaining wages and or entrepreneurial opportunities that also provide family and supportive and sustaining wages. We in higher education have to recognize, particularly generation Z, that everyone does not want to work for someone. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> that we have a compliment of folks today that want to work for themselves and they are fully engaged in the gig economy. They are involved not only in DoorDash and Uber Eats and those sorts of ends, where I think sometimes we are fixated on that is the gig coming. They're working at Upwork, they're working at fiber, they're doing very high level things. They are producing their, their words through Etsy. It's not just very low level, low pay types of gig work that's happening. There are high pay, high level gig work. And if you look at the business and industry now, you got about 33% of companies today are using freelancers as part of their employment strategy because of the fact that the talent you know, some call it a talent shortage. I call it a talent shift. The talent prospect is shifting as we move from an employer driven process to much more an employee choice process.

Amrit Ahluwalia (09:42): Well, it's an interesting window into, into the future of work. Cause it gives us a very different sense of what the labor market's going to look like and the skillset that an individual would need to be successful. It's not about, you know, we've talked a lot about T-shaped professionals and pie. I I my favorite is pie shaped professional you know, comb shaped professionals. Yeah. The idea that, you know, you have these, this lateral set of skills that are going to support you anywhere you are and the technical expertise to then drive it. But it seems as though if as we shift into a a, a future of work model, like as you're describing, there's a different set of professional skills that we need to layer on top. So maybe, you know, it starts to become a, you know, two la two parallels going horizontally and then however many vertical bars you want. So it's interesting, as I start to think in those, in that lens, how does the college start to adapt the way it approaches skill development, skill recognition and credential awarding of credentials to fit this very different picture of, of what the future of work looks like.

Michael Baston (10:44): If you have a course and a syllabus that's created for that course, and invariably that syllabus has learning objectives mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and it tells you exactly what you hope the student will learn as a result of taking this course. We ought to take those same learning objectives and crosswalk them to the 21st century skills that then allow a person who's going to take a course to realize why the course matters. And not just because it's a part of a general education cadre. Because the way in which people pick general education courses now is by what works in my schedule instead of what works in my career plan or my career path, or the things that I'm interested in that will make me employable, that will make me an entrepreneur, that will make me gainfully able to take care of myself and my family. And so the challenge to higher education today is to prepare a faculty that that's not their orientation.

(11:45): They learned how to write learning objectives. They learned how to write syllabi. They did not learn how to crosswalk, how to translate that into the 21st century skills that then provide real value in, in changing marketplace for students. So from my perspective, that's one thing we can do in higher education on behalf of our faculty, give them the professional development to crosswalk those learning objectives, to refresh some of the syllabi and the, the, the subjects refresh some of the examples with real life opportunities for work-based learning in other ways that you really will make it more relevant, more appealing to students and ultimately that they can use it wherever they decide to go down the line.

Amrit Ahluwalia (12:36): You know, as it's interesting, right? We talk, when we think about the work that the college does, and we think about it in these very macro terms, there's also the, the work of simply enrolling, retaining, supporting, persistence, bringing students back in. How do we need to change our models when it comes to communication, when it comes to learner engagement? I mean, even when it comes to, you know, are we going to use mobile devices or not? How do we start to shift the culture of higher education to meet students where they are, as opposed to the model we tend to use now, which is still very much, you know, well you're fortunate to be here and you know you're going to interact with us the way that we want you to.

Michael Baston (13:20): Well here's the reality. The learner is gaining more and more control of their destiny because they don't feel that they have to buy into the kinds of expectations of the past. Think about all the gatekeeping mechanisms that are no longer a prohibitor to rising in America. You remember a time when if you wanted to sell your record, you had to find a record label that would take your record. But now you can go on iTunes, you had to shop your, your screenplay to you to, to all of the major television networks or studios. You can go to YouTube now. You had to fight to get your book published. You can go to Amazon. So the traditional gatekeepers, many of the traditional gatekeepers to opportunity in the rise in America have now seen the weight and the force and the power of people who say, I can get my information out there.

(14:22): I can make a living in an alternative way. I can do things that are better and more appropriate to my time, my skills, my life circumstances. And so higher education, if it's going to continue to have the market share that it has right now and us right now, it's going to have to recognize that without the flexibility and the agility that we learned as part of our pandemic experience if we don't do that in a more regular way, we are not going to continue to be that hope that we have provided. Because their alternative means. Now there are people that are learning how to do things on YouTube and LinkedIn learning and they're printing off their little certificates of completion that folks in business and industry who can't get those people who come out with degrees will ultimately go to these people who went through these certificates online, you know, sort of things. If they can add value to business right now.

(15:20): And the price point is much different. So we've got to understand that in order for us to be a lifelong learning partner for students, we have to offer value. That means we've got to be flexible with our modalities. That means we've got to be much more sort of relevant in the pedagogy. That means that we have to have 24 hour a day, seven day a week tutoring and 24-hour day seven to eight a week counseling and all these services at times that are appropriate for the folks. Now you say, where are you going to get all the people to do that? Well then you have to partner with entrepreneurs who actually can help you extend your ability and your capacity to provide the services that your people want because you want those people.

Amrit Ahluwalia (16:07): You've done too many interviews with me because you knew that was exactly the next question. You know, one thing I'm curious about is, as you start to think about the, the place of the post-secondary institution today, and you mentioned the importance of lifelong learning. This is a topic you, you know, I I'm extremely passionate about. Of course. So how do we start to pivot? You mentioned right off the top, we cannot be oriented toward completion or attainment rate. It's bigger than that. But every element of the post-secondary model is designed for an 18-year-old comes in a 20 or a 22 year old goes out and then they donate for the rest of their life. How do we reorient the post-secondary model to be geared towards lifelong engagement as opposed to multiple single one-off engagements?

Michael Baston (16:56): Well, you've primarily described, and I'm not knocking my four-year brothers and sisters but in the two year space, we're probably one of the largest graduate programs in the country. Community colleges are probably the largest graduate programs in the country. Well, what do you mean Dr. Bassett? Because you have a lot of folks that go to four-year institutions, give great four year degrees and actually can't do anything. So they have a lot of knowledge but no skills, so they can't do anything. So what do they do? They come back to the community college to get a certificate that's going to actually give them access because the bachelor's degree gives them the gateway to actually deal with the hiring criteria. But it's the certificate that says I could actually do something that's going to add value.

(17:46):So, so for us, we can tell, you know, when I, I was teaching paralegal studies, I had plenty of people with bachelor's degrees coming to get a paralegal certificate because they could hang a shingle up right there after the completion of the certificate. They could notarize, they could go to, they could do all the things that they needed to do at a price that was a good price point for them, but that they could support their families. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So we have to understand that the whole system of higher ed is not in the same place. Fair. When you say, well man, the look at the enrollments are, are really going down in the community college space. What about those enrollments? Yeah. The enrolls for full-time equivalent students that have gone down. Yes. But you are not taken into account the rise in the number of Certificate Baron students that have gone up. So where we saw a decline in a number of students who came in that are coming in full-time enrollments and even part-time enrollments, you saw an increase in the certificates. Why? Because people wanted a price point and a speed level that could get them to move quickly into a marketplace to help them. And ultimately they may not have had an expectation to stay for a degree, but we then tell them, Hey, we'll give you credit for what you learned in the certificates, come back and give the degree. And many do.

Amrit Ahluwalia (19:01): Just to add some numbers to what Dr. Baston was just saying there according to clearinghouse, some sec, some sectors of the, of the undergraduate and graduate space saw enrollment declines in and around like up to 16%, really varying from 7% declines to 16% declines over two years. The undergraduate and graduate certificate space saw increases of 3.1% each. I mean we're really, is that more or less, is that what you guys have seen

Michael Baston (19:27): Absolutely what we're seeing. I mean, and the reality is the, the marketplace is shifting and higher education has to pay attention to the shifts. People are making decisions and I think when people say, well we are the workers, we can't find workers. People are working, they're just not working for you. 

(19:48): So when our places me, we can't find anybody to do the work. 70% of my students are part-time students. They all have jobs. You have to make a proudly proposition to them that says work for you is working for you is better for than working where they are. And part of that is we'll pay for your education so that you can continue to move up. And we won't just look at where you start, but we'll give you a career ladder in our organization so you can stay with us and build that level of commitment and connectivity in ways that we really just are only telling you about an entry level job. That's the way in which business and industry and education have to redesign and realign their relationship.

Amrit Ahluwalia (20:28): Well and that's, I mean, it's a perfect dovetail in into where, where I wanted to go from here, which is really, you know, as you think through the next five to 10 years in the higher education space broadly, but, but the college space specifically, what are some of the trends you think are going to really define our, our next decade?

Michael Baston (20:44): We will see more people faking much more deeply about entrepreneurship? I've said it several times because I really want to point out this generation is not interested in actually replicating the baby boomer generation approach. The baby boomer generation approach said, you go to work for a company for 30 years, you retire and you have your house and your kids and you move. That is not the current way that the younger folks that are going to be larger numbers over time are thinking about the world of work and the world in general. They don't want to work as hard as their parents. They say, well, we worked hard. Yes, we worked hard and we did everything. We had to get everything. We, we worked hard. We didn't do vacations until we got old and couldn't even enjoy it. These young people said, we want to do vacation now. We don't want to necessarily buy a home and get married right away.

(21:41): Have kids like you see the ages of folks, the children, when, when are folks getting married? When are folks having children, when are folks buying homes? And all those, all these kinds of things, you know, you, those kinds of things. That's a reality that there's a generational shift in expectation. And so as we look at the next five to 10 years, we've got to pay attention to the generational differences because that is what's going to lead the country in terms of the way in which we move forward. So I think that that's something that, that higher education has to pay attention to. Thinking about how this pandemic will still have reverberations of effects on the learning loss that happen as those young people move through the system. That's something that we have to prepare for because we, if we still have 2019 expectations after the students went through the Covid experience, we are seriously not on track for the future. And so how do we think about working with K to 12 in a way that allows us to continue to re knit some of the, the sort of loss and address it so that we continue to produce the kinds of citizens that are as advanced as possible that can take the reins of leadership when they're put in their hands so that we can be successful.

Amrit Ahluwalia (23:00): And it's always, it's always such a pleasure to get the chance to talk to you. Before I let you go, you've been in Cleveland for about six months now. Where do people need to go to eat?

Michael Baston (23:09): Cleveland Chop. I love Cleveland. Chop is a great restaurant. Steaks and pork chops and all kind of great things. Lots of wonderful appetizers, wonderful place, wonderful people. They take care of you. So if anybody's coming to Cleveland, make sure you stop by Cleveland Chop.

Amrit Ahluwalia (23:29): First of all, that was one of the best, best promos we've ever had. Second of all, I will see you in Cleveland. Hey, it's been a pleasure, man. Thank you so much.

Michael Baston (23:39): Wonderful to see you. Take good care now.

Voiceover: This podcast is made possible by a partnership between Modern Campus and The EvoLLLution. The Modern Campus engagement platform, powered solutions for non-traditional student management, web content management, catalog and curriculum management, student engagement and development, conversational text messaging, career pathways, and campus maps and virtual tours. The result innovative institutions can create learner to earner life cycle that engages modern learners for life, while providing modern administrators with the tools needed to streamline workflows and drive high efficiency. To learn more and to find out how to modernize your campus, visit That's