Thirty Years of Partnership in Two California Community College Districts

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Key takeaways

  • Institutions that have been investing in tech strategy before the pandemic are efficiently adapting.
  • Improvements to degree planning and advising have liberated both students and faculty.
  • Technology that empowers student-centered support and well-being will be a key component of successful institutions.

When we look back at 2020’s impact on the higher education landscape, one of the most fascinating aspects will be the accelerated pace of change that characterized the response to COVID-19. In fact, with the rapid shift to remote learning, services, and operations, we’ve seen unmistakable evidence that colleges and universities aren’t as slow to adapt as some may have thought prior to the pandemic.

That said, it’s important to remember that this digital revolution didn’t start in March – and that none of the innovation we’ve seen in the months since would have been possible unless higher education had been building towards this moment of transformation for years prior, if not decades.

Want proof? Look no further than two community college districts in California that are approaching 30 years of partnership with Ellucian – and the steady growth that has evolved nearly every element of the student experience both on and off their campuses.

Chabot-Las Positas Community College District

When Chabot College opened for classes in September of 1961, it started with an enrollment of 1,163 students. Today, it and Las Positas College form a district that serves more than 14,000 students in and around Alameda County – offering 175 majors and more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs. When the colleges began working with Ellucian in 1990, they were already playing a critical role in the region’s workforce and economic development efforts. Today, thirty years of technology investments enable them to make that contribution more efficiently than ever before.

“The biggest change we’ve seen over that period is in the time it takes to get things done,” says Bruce Griffin, Chief Technology Officer of the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District. “There was a time when the college experience outside of the classroom entailed a lot of standing in line. You had to wait to register for classes and fill out your schedule card. You had to wait to see a financial aid officer. You had to wait to complete just about every administrative task there was – and you had to do it in person, unless you were lucky enough to have a phone system by which you could access the course catalogue.

“Now all of this is done on students’ devices,” says Griffin. “And the fact that it can be done from anywhere makes a big difference for our student body. When you don’t have to sit in traffic for an hour to complete a 10-minute task on campus, that time can be spent at work, with your family, or on your studies – and when those tasks are easier to complete, you are all the more likely to stick with your program and follow through to completion.”

At the same time, what’s been true for the district’s students has applied to faculty and staff as well. “Not only are we more efficient in terms of business processes and capabilities,” says Griffin. “With access to more data on our performance than ever before, we are able to pivot and innovate faster and ensure that our programs and operations are keeping up with the needs of our constituents.”

Southwestern Community College District

Over the nearly 60 years that the Southwestern Community College District has been educating students in the San Diego metropolitan area, its five campuses have grown to become an integral part of the region they serve. From a new wellness and aquatics complex to a recently completed performing arts center, its physical presence is still expanding in ways that strengthen its ties to the community. “It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t taken classes with us or developed some kind of connection to the colleges,” says Dr. Tina King, VP for Student Affairs in the district. “And I think a lot of that has to do with the ways we strive to put students’ needs first.”

Of all the ways that technology has changed the district over the last 30 years, Dr. King sees two that are the most impactful. “The first is the degree of freedom that students now have to chart their own course to their career goals,” says Dr. King. “Students used to be given this hard piece of paper that mapped out their entire journey from A to B to C. You couldn’t see beyond that sheet of paper to all the other degrees or options that were available – and, as a result, it was easy for students to feel locked in and unable to adapt their course of study to their evolving interests or needs. Today, technology has made degree planning and advising more fluid and flexible – and given our students more control over their own destinies.”

The second area where Dr. King sees the most significant technological impact is student support. “Six years ago, we created something called the Cranium Café – it’s where our students can digitally interact with nearly 30 different departments and services within the system, from the Career Center to Financial Aid to Veterans Services,” says Dr. King. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cranium Café has also served as an access point for telehealth services that are helping students manage the added stresses of this unique period.

“Because we had made these investments prior to the pandemic, we were able to look at how we could further leverage what we already have to help students, rather than create something from scratch,” says Dr. King. “Simply put, tech has provided us agility and ability to respond effectively to student needs at a time when our support is needed most.”

What’s Next?

During my own stint as a higher education CIO in California, my favorite thing about technological innovation was how each step forward built momentum for the next step to come. Once the ball gets rolling and institutions see what’s possible, the progress is hard to stop. As such, the future looks bright for Chabot-Las Positas and Southwestern Community College Districts – because that future is already underway.

“For us, there’s a lot of focus on further enhancing the experience for our continuing education and non-credit students,” says Dr. King. “These populations aren’t always included in the latest technology implementations and they need to be a part of the conversations. We need to provide a more user-friendly experience that is as intuitive as possible. So, as we implement more and more self-service capabilities moving forward, we’ll be looking closely at how best to ensure that our nontraditional students are getting the support they need to be their best.”

Bruce Griffin sees student support playing a central role in his district’s future tech investments as well. “I see technology playing a big role in our Guided Pathways and other student success initiatives moving forward,” says Griffin. “And that has a lot to do with how technology has built upon itself over the last 30 years. First, we started facilitating transactions with our innovations. Then, we facilitated learning – and that work has really accelerated as a result of COVID-19. Now, we’re turning our attention to facilitating student success with technology that enhances degree planning and advising in new and exciting ways. We’re going beyond the classroom now – and that’s a great place for technology to be.”

I couldn’t agree more – and it’s great to see innovation making the next natural progressions in a journey that began decades ago and continues to support higher education’s all-important mission. Here’s to 30 years of growth, innovation, and success in the Chabot-Las Positas and Southwestern Community College Districts – and here’s to 30 more!

Danna Gianforte is Vice President for Digital Transformation at Ellucian and a former Chief Information Officer at Stanford University and the University of California, Riverside.

Meet the authors
Danna Gianforte
Danna Gianforte
Vice President, Digital Transformation

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