3 October · Episode 175
Building a Sustainable Higher Education Model: CSCU's Partnership for Workforce Readiness
34 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton
Learn how CSCU’s unification of its once-siloed community college is building a sustainable higher education model and helping improve retention and enrollment.
Learn how CSCU’s unification of its once-siloed community college is building a sustainable higher education model and helping improve retention and enrollment.
The first half of this two-part series with Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU)’s Chancellor Terence Cheng explores how CSCU partners with local businesses to ensure equity and workforce preparation for its majority-minority student population.
Forming Effective Partnerships with Local Businesses
At UConn Stamford before coming to CSCU, Dr. Terrence pinpointed local businesses in the Stamford, Connecticut, area like NBC Sports and then identified the type of skills NBC Sports wanted to connect them with the programs UConn Stamford offered that could best meet their needs.
98% of CSCU’s students come from Connecticut and will remain there, so CSCU strives to create a strong relationship with local businesses where these businesses feel compelled to call the system if they have any needs. Dr. Terrence describes it as building “muscle memory” for them.
Higher ed leaders need to help local businesses realize a simple if/then value proposition if they partner with your system. You want them to say, “If I call CSCU, I will get this.”
Improved Retention Through Streamlined Transfers
CSCU helped unite the system’s 12 legacy community colleges into one singularly accredited multi-campus institution. A united system provides a more streamlined and efficient shared services model on the back end that anticipates providing improved academic performance, retention, graduation rates, and job placements.
Most community college students cannot take 12 or even 9 credits at a time and regularly move across the state for various reasons. A unified curriculum makes transferring easier. To streamline transferring, higher ed must first identify the percentage of community college students who want to transfer but haven’t and those who transfer within and outside your system.
After performing this analysis, remove obstacles that complicate transferring, such as “the last-credit conundrum.” This can be accomplished by breaking down the perception that a course taken from a community college is not good enough for a university. Also, more effectively communicate the seamlessness of your continuum from community colleges to four-year institutions to help attract and retain students.
At a Glance
- How systems like CSCU need to position themselves in relation to major flagship universities in their state like UConn
- CSCU’s unique history when Governor Daniel Malloy created CSCU’s system more than 10 years ago
- The challenges of navigating a siloed university system that is deeply rooted in its ways
About our Guest
Terrence Cheng is president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system, which oversees 12 community colleges, four state universities, and Charter Oak State College, and serves more than 72,000 students.
The Board of Regents unanimously appointed President Cheng on May 7, 2021, and he began his presidency on July 2, 2021. He served as campus director of the University of Connecticut Stamford campus from 2016 to 2021, where he also served as a faculty member in the English department. He has also held several academic and administrative leadership and faculty roles which include associate provost/assistant vice president, Academic Programs at Brooklyn College; and associate dean, School of Arts and Humanities, and chair, Department of English at Lehman College. Both institutions are part of the City University of New York.
Cheng, a first-generation student, earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Binghamton University and an MFA in fiction from the University of Miami, where he was a James Michener Fellow. He is the author of two novels: Sons of Heaven (2002), and Deep in the Mountains (2007), as well as numerous published short stories and essays. In 2005, he received a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
About the Host
Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 175 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Terrence Cheng – Building a Sustainable Higher Education Model: CSCU’s Partnership for Workforce Readiness
Welcome to Changing Higher Ed, a podcast dedicated to helping higher education leaders improve their institutions, with your host, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, CEO of the Change Leader, a consultancy that helps higher ed leaders holistically transform their institutions. Learn more at changinghighered.com. And now, here’s your host, Drumm McNaughton.
Drumm McNaughton 00:30
Thank you, David. Our guest today is Terence Cheng, chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges and University system. The Connecticut State system serves more than 72,000 students through its 12 community colleges for state universities and Charter Oak State College. The CT state system is undergoing significant changes that will leverage its strengths in a state that is a minority majority to ensure equity and workforce preparation for the universities and colleges whose graduates are the engine of the state workforce. Terrence is a visionary change agent and has been on the job for two years. He joins us today to talk about the changes that the Connecticut state system is undergoing, how those changes are impacting the citizens of Connecticut, and the change leadership that’s necessary to make them a reality. Terrence, welcome to the show.
Terrence Cheng 01:26
Thank you so much for having me.
Drumm McNaughton 01:28
My pleasure, I am looking forward to our conversation. Just to kick it off, you’re a member of REP4, which is an organization started by President Philomena “Philly” Mantella that talks about innovation in higher ed. It’s an incredible organization.
Terrence Cheng 01:45
Yes, it’s a great organization. Philly is a remarkable leader. It’s a real honor to be with other presidents and chancellors from across the country who are committed to looking at the evolution of higher education from the student lens and point of view. At the end of the day, we are here to serve students. And so who better to learn from as we develop pedagogy and curriculum than from the students themselves? It’s a great group.
Drumm McNaughton 02:17
It really is. You’re the third person I’ve interviewed from REP4. My first was Russell Lowery-Hart, who just started as the chancellor at the Austin Community College District.
Terrence Cheng 02:32
Yes, he did. Great move for him.
Drumm McNaughton 02:35
It is. Some of the stories we’ve talked about is how he dealt with the pandemic, which was just incredible. But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about you and what you’re doing at the Connecticut State system. So, if you wouldn’t mind, please give us a little bit of background about yourself, so listeners get a sense of who you are.
Terrence Cheng 02:58
So, I am an immigrant from Taiwan. I actually came here to the United States when I was about a year old with my parents. We came up through some pretty humble times, and I’ve always appreciated the opportunities I received through public education, all through K-12 and during my undergraduate years at SUNY Binghamton in New York. So it has been a pleasure to work in public higher education for my entire career, city, first at the University of New York system, in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and then for the University of Connecticut, where I was the leader of their Stamford regional campus.
Again, it was an environment I felt very comfortable in because there were so many students of color who were also first-gen students like myself, students I felt like I could really connect with. I’ve always had the real privilege to work with them and for them. So, I am happy to be working as the chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges and University system, which is a minority majority system. Fifty two percent of our students are nonwhite. So many of them are first-gen. We have many immigrants with incredible socio-economic diversity and impact. So it’s a very incredible journey I’ve been on, and I feel really great where we are now.
Drumm McNaughton 04:19
Well, you’re a relatively young system. You’ve been in place for 10 years. You’re the fourth chancellor, and I can just imagine some of the challenges that you’ve had to go through in bringing multiple campuses together.
Terrence Cheng 04:38
Yes, we have six institutions, and when you include satellite campuses, we have closer to 20 campuses across the state.
Drumm McNaughton 04:47
So bringing those together is a huge change management issue, isn’t it?
Terrence Cheng 04:54
I would say so. One of my lessons that I constantly remind myself of is it’s not where you are. It’s how you got there. You have to be very mindful and respectful of the journey of how we got to this place. When the system was created by then Governor Daniel Malloy over 10 years now, there was a lot controversy around it. This was not helped by the fact that the first hired chancellor lasted less than two years. Then the next full-time chancellor also lasted less than two years. So you can imagine the incredible skepticism that came from those happenings at the time.
The system was stabilized by my predecessor who focused a great deal on the community colleges. But he didn’t have the opportunity or the focus to bring the community colleges together with the universities and online college. So we started at the beginning during the start of my chancellorship. It’s been an interesting process excavating how and why folks feel the way they do while trying to understand that cultural resistance and figuring out ways to move forward.
Drumm McNaughton 06:19
That cultural resistance is interesting because of my background and whatnot. But one of the things that we talk about in our business is people support what they helped create, right? Not a whole bunch of folks have had any input. It’s like, “Oh, we’re now part of a system?”
Terrence Cheng 06:41
I think you’re right. Again, I can’t speak to exactly what those conversations may or may not have been like. But the lived experience I’ve had when talking to many, many people across all of our institutions and campuses is that they have felt, at times, disenfranchised. They weren’t invited to the table. They weren’t respected in those conversations, whether it was during the creation of the system itself or during some of the big moves and changes that took place.
It’s therefore a very real thing that also leans into how Connecticut is a place that takes pride in not changing. They call Connecticut, the land of study habits, and they’re serious about that. So the system I came into was one where multiple campuses and institutions were functioning as more of a confederation of silos than an actual system.
Drumm McNaughton 07:42
You’re also a minority majority state. Most of the students who are going to the regional campuses stay in Connecticut. You have your flagships and big names like UConn and Yale, but the majority of students going through the system schools stay in Connecticut. So your focus has to be very different than a flagship, doesn’t it?
Terrence Cheng 08:10
Absolutely. Coming from the flagship into this role, one of the things I’ve tried to stress is that we’re not in competition with UConn, right? They are a Research I university. They’re doing probably $500 million in research expenditures every year. They have Division I sports with a global brand. They’re just a completely different value proposition than our regional public higher education system.
That is not to denigrate. If anything, I take great pride in the fact that we are not an exclusive institution, the way certain privates are and flagships may be. We are inclusive. So our responsibility is even greater in some ways, right? We take on all newcomers, and it is our responsibility to do the best we can for them and for them to make sure they can achieve bigger, better things in their lives, whether that means a better job or the ability to create generational familial assets and potentially wealth for their families. All the while, we must make an economic and workforce development impact for our state. These are things that not every institution is going to be charged with, but our system is charged with this, and that’s a massive responsibility that we need to embrace, take pride in, and be able to sing our song even more loudly.
Drumm McNaughton 09:42
What I’m hearing from you is the new purpose of higher education. It’s always been for the public good, and it still should be, but you’re also talking about equity. You’re also talking about social mobility. You’re talking about seeing someone and giving them opportunities they would not have had from an economic and societal perspective. This is the way, in my opinion, higher ed should be focusing nowadays.
Terrence Cheng 10:14
I completely agree with you. The mountain we attempt to climb every single day is not one that we created, necessarily, but it is one that we are tasked with embracing and making progress upon. To be philosophical for a moment, if we look back at the history of higher education here in the United States, it was not created for the people who mostly attend our institutions here at Connecticut. It was created, either from an agricultural lens for skills or for those with that expectation and privilege. That sensibility unfortunately remains in our cultural zeitgeist when it comes to certain aspects or opportunities within higher education as a commodity instead of a public good or an access kind of opportunity that will allow all folks to advance.
So there are certain historical factors that we have to continue to work against. I get concerned when I hear a lot of folks talk about our students as great workers and employees in public regional higher education? Do they talk about them as nurses? Or do they talk about them as doctors? Do they talk about them as accountants? Or do they talk about them as CEOs? Are you an IT technician? Or are you potentially the next IT innovator and transformer? That’s the difference.
It’s subliminal. It’s subliminal when we talk about certain students at certain institutions. We are automatically creating the paper or glass ceiling for them. That, to me, is the great challenge, which is to embrace the fact that we have certain implicit biases when we think about higher education and specifically public higher education. How do we confront that as we continue to do the best we can for our students to help the state?
Drumm McNaughton 12:30
You’re the first person I’ve heard enunciate that so clearly. Thank you. That is really impressive. So in addition to this zeitgeist and glass ceiling that isn’t even conscious, we have a lot of challenges in public higher ed right now, especially for the regionals. We have the enrollment cliffs, budgets, and sustainable revenues. These are affecting the Connecticut system as well, I would assume.
Terrence Cheng 13:03
They are having a massive impact. It’s been made even more challenging, as I think most folks in the world would say by COVID. We’ve had multiple academic years affected in an enormous fashion by COVID, and that has truly exacerbated the enrollment declines that we were experiencing as well.
All the enrollment declines, especially in the Northeast, really began in 2010, and we weren’t responsive enough. By the time we started to say, “Wait a minute, we need to make some changes,” COVID hit. It was just getting hammered one piece after another. The enrollment cliff is real. I believe in in science. I believe in demographers. Most of the time, they do a pretty darn good job. All the data we see is that this enrollment cliff is going to be severe across the country, and we’re already feeling it here in the Northeast. So we have to think about how to create sustainable revenue. How do you adjust your budget models for that reality? That is something we have to honestly soberly grapple with if we want sustainable and viable options.
That, to me, is what making change for the future is all about. It’s not just about maintaining what we know we’re comfortable with. We have to say, “This is the here and now.” We have to look five, 10, and 15 years from now to see what can we do to prepare, especially since for a public institutions like ours, which is supported pretty generously by our state right now. If you look at other state systems percentage-wise, we’re doing pretty well when it comes to the percentage our budget that comes from the state. We have to continually prepare for the fact that things aren’t always going to be that way, and we don’t want to be in this cycle where every two years we are going to the legislature with our hat in hand. Once again, we have to take our destiny into our own hands.
Drumm McNaughton 15:09
I agree. It’s interesting that you bring up the COVID piece. We’re seeing a lot of institutions that were bolstered by the federal funding that came out of the Cares Act. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had Gordon Gi, whose name has been in the news quite a bit lately, on the program. He made a comment to me that I thought was very prescient. He said COVID has accelerated needed changes in higher ed by a decade or more. We’re seeing that. We’re seeing that right now.
Terrence Cheng 15:40
I agree. Again, hindsight is always 20/20, right? We needed to be more mindful, more receptive, and more operationalized. By the data, it should have been happening in 2007-08. What was happening at that time, obviously, was coming off the Great Recession. We saw this spike in enrollment that also trended with the demography.
Now, I’m not saying all of us should have been demographers. That would be silly. The reality is, these are the numbers and we have the data experience. We should know better now. So shame on us if we don’t do something about it.
Drumm McNaughton 16:35
So, you are in Connecticut. One of the things that I enjoyed when we spoke yesterday was learning about your North Star and your vision for the system. You’re taking that vision and spreading it out across all your campuses and all your institutions.
Terrence Cheng 16:52
Yes, absolutely. First and foremost, I firmly believe that higher education, specifically public higher education, that is accessible and open to as many people as possible is still the greatest life-changing force in our society. All the data shows that with a four-year degree, your return on that investment is over a million dollars in earnings over your career span, right? With an associate’s degree, it’s about $750,000 of additional career earnings. So the numbers speak for themselves to a large part.
I have seen the power of what a system can have through our own in Connecticut and at the City University of New York, a 25-institution system that serves over a half a million people. That’s a lot of people. These systems can change states, regions, industry, and society. So coming into this position, I looked at it and said, “What an opportunity to connect the dots and do the work that needs to be done for the state and for all the people if we can create that symmetry and fluidity that allows students and folks from of all walks to enter educational and training opportunities that allow them to continue to move laterally and with upward mobility.”
Can we do a better job of bringing even more K-12 students into that continuum? Can we do an even better job of creating that connectivity between our community colleges and our four-year institutions? When they leave, can we help pipeline them directly into the workforce? That kind of continuum seems not just necessary, but plausible and achievable. Of course, this requires a great deal of hard work, but all the pieces are there.
To me, that’s what remains so existing. If we can construct that continuum to be as seamless, sophisticated, simple, and elegant as possible, we’re going to get a lot of people in, through, and into these more prominent positions in their lives.
Drumm McNaughton 19:21
So let’s go back to that initial conversation earlier today. The vision. It’s not only the public good. That’s an inherent part of higher education. It’s workforce needs, right? State residents need equity. You, your team, and your system have done a lot of great things. Let’s talk a little bit about that. Our listeners are going to really want to know what you’ve done and how you’re driving these changes to make higher ed relevant, especially at public regionals, for everybody.
Terrence Cheng 20:13
Yes, I’ll start with the workforce and go back to my experience in Stamford. Again, it’s a smaller campus that’s part of the UConn flagship, but located in a prominent city here in Connecticut. Our work involved creating relationships at the local level, with prominent employers and community industry leaders. So looking at a company like NBC Sports, what are you looking for? You’re looking for digital media folks. You’re looking for marketing folks. You’re looking for production folks. How do we connect our talent to your needs, right? It involves looking at different industries and leaders in the area and trying to have that conversation with them and to be responsive.
Now, at the system level across all these different campuses and encompassing the entire state, the approach is the same. We were activating our wonderful faculty and staff and making the connection of our student talent to the needs of the Connecticut Hospital Association, Hartford Healthcare, or Sikorsky. There are so many great industries that have important hiring needs. We need to have an ability to broker these relationships with them and be responsive. We need to have a phone call away type of relationship. Hopefully someone in the C-Suite can call me as a chancellor and say, “Cheng, I need this.” It might be five individuals in a particular unit. It might be 5,000 individuals over the next 10 years. How do we align our offerings, our curriculum, our resources, and our workforce?
The other piece of this, too, is that social mobility and Community Impact Factor. I want to say that 98% of our students come from Connecticut, which is a huge source of great pride. As we said before, it’s a minority majority system now. So, again, we’re serving many students who would not have had a chance to attain their higher education dreams without us. So we’re bringing those Connecticut students in, but then they stay to live and work in Connecticut after they graduate. So what is the socio-economic impact on our communities? How many people ultimately have better lives because of the education and the training that they receive through us?
When we are able to package and talk about that with integrity, honesty, and great deal of energy and pride, it reframes our entire value proposition to the state and our students. Listen. They’re going to vote with their feet, right? When they want to go somewhere, they will go somewhere. We just have to give them all the reasons to come.
Drumm McNaughton 23:09
That’s interesting. What I’m hearing is the Connecticut State regional public schools aren’t necessarily the economic drivers, but they are providing a lot of the resources for industry.
Terrence Cheng 23:29
Absolutely. I would say we are certainly a key component of the lifeblood, if not the pure lifeblood of the state’s workforce. You can’t walk into a doctor’s office without having one of their aides or nurses who has experienced education in our classrooms.
Drumm McNaughton 23:49
It must have taken time to build up those relationships with industry to where they will call your campus directors and say we need this particular change to happen in the curriculum to help educate in this area.
Terrence Cheng 24:10
That’s right. That’s trust, right? All this work comes back to trust, relationships, and understanding what you’re going to get from each other. You have to have a if/then value proposition. If someone says, “If I call CSCU, then I am going to get this.” It has to be so simple and clear in that way. Ultimately, we want to have that kind of relationship and trust to have it spread as ubiquitously as possible.
There is a role for us to play and we are playing it, but we don’t play it with the level of clarity or acuteness that, let’s say, a hedge fund might only hire analysts from certain Ivy League schools. That’s just the way that or organization might function. But I would want the Connecticut Hospital Association to say, “We need nurses. We need LPNs. I know where to look within the Connecticut State University system to get what I need.” That is a muscle memory that has to be developed in that relationship. We’re at the beginning of that.
Drumm McNaughton 25:29
Let’s go on to a couple of the other things you’ve done, but I’m really glad that we went first with workforce development because that is so critical for public regionals. One of the big things you’ve done is merge your community colleges. Tell me about that and some of the advantages that you’ve seen from having done that.
Terrence Cheng 25:57
Originally, there were 12 legacy community colleges spread all across the state. Folks took a great amount of pride in them as they should. The reality of the situation that was broken down a few years ago was that the academic outcomes were not where the students needed them to be. On top of that, there were financial challenges demonstrated by an analysis of the budget. So my predecessor went through a planning process and ultimately was an architect for a merger or unification of the 12 legacy community colleges into one singularly accredited multi-campus institution.
In the past two years, we have completed that accreditation process. So we’re very proud to say that CT State Community College is now the largest community college in the Northeast, and it serves more than 60,000 individuals, and there are a lot of benefits to it.
Imagine a small state like Connecticut that literally has the population of one of the larger boroughs of New York City. You have over 40 institutions of higher education in the state of Connecticut, serving less than 3 million people. So we have to think about that and say, “Well, what are the obstacles to success?” So what CT State Community College does now is it not only addresses some of the budgetary challenges with a more streamlined and more efficient shared services model on the back end, but what we hope to be improvements in academic performance, retention, graduation rates, and job placements. By eliminating obstacles in between the 12 campuses, we create a level of fluidity.
Ultimately, the unified curriculum is something very striking. We know that community college students don’t have the luxury that many students have to take 12 credits at a time or even nine credits at a time. Oftentimes, they are going to move because of family, jobs, and other life situations. By creating a unified curriculum, it makes transferring easier if they choose to move on to another institution or pursue the same curriculum within CT State. There are many benefits to having this unified community college.
Drumm McNaughton 28:53
How have you been able to deal with transfer credits between the community college system and your four years?
Terrence Cheng 29:02
The transfer enrollment is not nearly where it should be. Our data shows that approximately 60% of students in the community college right now don’t transfer at all and many of them want to. So that right there is a huge situation we need to deal with. Within those students who do transfer only approximately 15% or 17% transfer within our system. So there is a great deal of progress we need to make with transfering.
So what are we doing to address that? First, you have to do your analysis and understand what the numbers look like. Now that we know what the numbers look like, we can start to enact new processes. We’re going to enact new policies and new procedures for transfer. Try to eliminate the last credit conundrum that I think many students experience you. Break down the perceptions that a course taken from a community college is not good enough at a university. We need to stop saying, “Your Bio is fine at this community college, but you have to retake Bio here at the university. Right. We’ll give you an elective credit, but we won’t give you a Gen Ed credit.” That unfortunately happens all the time, and I’m not afraid to say it happens here. It’s a problem. We can’t keep throwing up roadblocks for our own students.
It’s also important to be intentional about the conversation. Going back to sharing the vision of the continuum, when you go through community college, we’re going to make it as seamless and as painless as possible for you to be accepted at one of the four universities and ultimately give you that kind of support so that you can be successful there as well.
It starts with the data and comes down to a very rational understanding of where the hiccups are, cleaning out as many of the obstacles as possible, and letting the students be successful.
Drumm McNaughton 31:03
It makes perfect sense, and you’re absolutely right. Sixty percent of students don’t transfer. But that’s not just Connecticut. That is nationwide. We have to do more about this. We have to get rid of the “not invented here syndrome.”
Terrence Cheng 31:21
Correct. I would also like to talk about telling our story. I talked about this with my own leaders here within the state and across the country. We have to stop talking about higher education as if you don’t need it. We hear too many leaders across the country at both the federal and state level saying, “Just go out and get a great job. You don’t need a college degree to get a great job these days.”
Listen. That might be true right here, right now. You could probably go into most towns and cities in America and get a decent job to get paid $20-25 bucks per hour, maybe more, right? But if we think about where we want people to be as a society when they’re in their 50s and their 60s, is $25 an hour going to be enough? Of course not. There’s no way. What kind of pipe dream are we selling to people when we keep telling them they don’t need education? The data shows that education will have a compounding effect on your long-term economics as an individual, family, and for your communities. We need to be more brazen in that message and stop following political tropes of going out there, getting a job, and getting a certificate because it’s just as good as getting a degree. No, it’s not. It’s not nearly as good. The people who are hiring at Google and Amazon will tell you that they are actually looking for more than just their own certificates to place people in jobs that make $70,000, $80,000, or $90,000 a year. That’s not enough. We have to be very honest about that.
Drumm McNaughton 32:58
Yes, it makes perfect sense. This is coming up to the end of part one. Thanks for listening today. Also, I’d like to give a special thank you to our guest, Terrence Cheng, chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges and University system. Tune in next week to hear the conclusion of my interview with Terrence and the many things he’s doing and continues to do for the Connecticut State System. Thanks again for listening. See you next week.
Changing Higher Ed is a production of the Change Leader, a consultancy committed to transforming higher ed institutions. Find more information about this topic and show notes on this episode at changinghighered.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the show. We would also value your honest rating and review. Email any questions, comments, or recommendations for topics or guests to email@example.com. Changing Higher Ed is produced and hosted by Dr. Drumm McNaughton. Post-production is by David L. White.