By Bill Cresenzo
One year ago this week, Edna Baehre-Kolovani became Tidewater Community College's fifth and newest president. Inaugurated in May, she is a native of Germany, where she grew up in a small, rural village.
She received Germany's equivalent of the bachelor's degree in elementary education and English from the Teacher's College in Heidelberg, part of the University of Heidelberg. She arrived in the United States in 1972 and received her masters's degree and her Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1975 and 1977 with a concentration in medieval languages and literature.
"Through a series of positions, including writing competency-based curriculum, being the director of a large camp fire council, and teaching German at a community college, I began my 'journey' into community colleges," Baehre-Kolovani said.
She was dean of continuing education, dean of instruction and vice president of instruction at community colleges in New York state and Illinois. In 1997, she became president of Harrisburg Area Community College in Pensylvania, a position she held for 13 years.
From 2010 until 2012, she was the superintendent and president of Napa Valley College in California before coming to TCC.
What prompted you to apply for the position of TCC?
Personally, I was interested to return to the East Coast for lifestyle preference, and to be closer to family. Professionally, TCC is a gem of a professional opportunity among the nation's 1,200 community colleges because of its innovation, complexity, and depth and breadth of programs, and impact on the Hampton Roads communities. When I saw the vacancy announcement I conferred with colleagues in the community college system who verified what I knew about TCC's reputation.
Among the minimum requirements was that the applicant had to have led a large, multi-campus, complex community college. During my tenure at HACC, the college became the largest community college in Pennsylvania, growing from a little over 10,000 to nearly 23,000 and five campuses in an eight-county area with an operating budget of $142 million. I was selected by the Virginia State Board for Community Colleges from among 68 applicants to lead TCC.
Now that you have been here for a year, what do you find are the community college's biggest strengths?
The entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the college is evident wherever I look. In addition, the focus on student success and serving veterans and their military families - over 14,000 last year alone - are other strengths. The staff of the college and their interest in going the extra mile make coming to work a joy every day.
What have you found are its greatest weaknesses?
The college has grown so exponentially over the last couple of years that many business practices, policies and procedures have not been applied system-wide or consistently, which is a normal outcome of the rapid growth. The same had occurred at HACC and we managed to bring everything in under the one college concept, meaning all standard operating policies and procedures had to be analyzed for consistent applications. TCC staff and faculty readily identified it as an issue as soon as we began to develop the new college strategic plan.
What challenges do you think community college students are facing today that they have not had to face in the past?
Too many students and their parents are discouraged from considering higher education because of the publicity about the high-cost colleges. The perception in the public's mind is that all tuition costs are high, and that all colleges require families to take on huge debt burdens, which oftentimes do not result in the graduates finding employment in their fields of study.
This is in spite of the reasonable tuition cost for community colleges, in spite of articulation agreements between two-year community colleges and four-year universities and in spite of the relevancy of associate's degrees for either direct employment in high-paying fields or for easy and successful transfer to universities.
We can sit down with a prospective student and his/her parent and plot a course of study toward a bachelor's degree, if that is what they want, and show them that they can achieve that goal with virtually no debt at the end.
Or we can demonstrate the entry-level earnings potential for those with the applied associate degree in fields with a greater annual income than many four-year degrees.
Coupled with those challenges, students today will need to acquire new knowledge and skills, and apply new technologies regardless of which field they enter. So, continued learning is part of the future for every student.
In addition, the economy certainly is having an effect on college enrollments. In our region of Hampton Roads, in particular, the uncertainty of the job market is making people hesitant to enroll in college. The impact of sequestration, changes in technology and the elimination of many private-sector jobs, have, I think, created an atmosphere of angst in our region.
What is your vision for the school?
The new five-year strategic plan - for 2013-2018 - is shaping up under this motto: One College, One Voice, One Future - Growing Together from Good to Great.
The core of the new plan is based on three elements: collaboration, dedication and innovation. And, of course, the most important goal is student success.
The vision shared by the TCC community is that TCC will be a college where everyone is focused on ensuring that students can be successful because all business practices, degree programs and facilities are aligned toward student success.
What are you doing to make sure that student enrollment stays steady?
We have initiated a strategic recruitment program at all campuses by aligning all outreach activities so that they can be applied consistently across our campuses.
We have also focused our retention activities on current students and on those who have "stepped out" to encourage them to return. We expect that the current enrollment decline, shared by many colleges across the country, will level off this year, and the new certificate and degree programs will attract students with enrollments increasing within the next year.
What are your thoughts on student loan debt?
Student loan debt is not a serious issue for graduates of community colleges. By working through our counseling departments and with a view toward the many articulation agreements that we have with universities such as ODU, VCU and William & Mary, we can help students achieve an associate's degree with virtually no debt.
With ODU, for example, we have several agreements where students can earn 80 credits from TCC, transfer them to ODU into the 120-credit-hour degree program, making the last 40 credit hours at the ODU tuition rate affordable. And on top of that, the degree programs are relevant for high-paying fields such as engineering and technology.
Ever since the economy crashed, there has been a lot of discussion about the value of a college education and whether the cost of one is worth the benefits. What are you thoughts on this?
Post-high school education is a must. A recent report from the Brookings Institute has empirical evidence that an associate's degree provides opportunities for high-wage career fields because of their relevance in today's economy. nib