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Trading Up

Education at whatever age, at whatever stage

Bucks County Community College leaders: College can be for everyone. It just takes many forms.

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Chairman of the Board Thomas Jennings sees Bucks County Community College as a welcoming way to unlock a student’s mind and talent.

He would like to see society view education more broadly, as a value unto itself, not simply as a means to a job.

“The critical reason you come to our institution is to learn something,” he said. “We’re not necessarily the final destination. And we don’t pretend to be. As a truly community-oriented college, we view ourselves as a path along the way for our students, always remaining mindful of local workforce and employment trends and needs.”

Jennings stresses that coming out of high school, many students may be unsure of what they want to do. They need an open-armed environment where they can be exposed to different things and get the answers they need to take the next step.

“College” redefined for high schoolers

Dr. Kelly Kelleway has been with Bucks for more than two decades and was officially instated as Provost in July. In higher education, the Provost is the chief academic officer of the institution, responsible for overseeing development of educational programs.

“In the last year or so, we have been extremely proactive in building relationships with every high school in the county, which is a really big win for us,” she said. “We’ve achieved some form of dual enrollment program with most county high schools, so in terms of our credit offerings, we’re maintaining a strong toehold across the county.”

In BCCC’s admissions area, recruiters take a simple message — that college can be for everyone, but it can take many forms — to high school students across the county.

Simple. But maybe a little overwhelming. To take the pressure off, BCCC’s recruiters strive to explain to students, guidance counselors and parents, the multitude of shorter-term community college offerings.

Kelleway speaks from personal experience concerning incoming generations of students.

“I have a 17-year-old myself and he’s a very different learner,” she said. “Traditional college and long-term commitments are not his thing and I see that attribute across this generation. So we’re definitely looking to align the college with those students’ evolving needs.”

If it’s clear a student is not college-bound, rather they’re looking for a quick turnaround program to hop into a job, Kelleway wants it known that “BCCC has that option for them. If your student is someone who never thought that they were going to college because they don’t really know what college could be for them, we underscore we offer so many diverse things for a prospective student, not just a pipeline to a four-year institution.”

Kelleway believes perceptions around immediately diving into a four-year degree program is “an unfortunate misconception based more on prestige and branding than anything else. If parents previously attended a large university, I ask them to think back to their undergraduate degree programs and consider how many of their classes were taught by graduate students, whose first priority was not their classrooms but their own research. At institutions like Bucks, we’re stocked chockablock with PhDs, and I would argue, depending on the four-year institution, your likelihood as a freshman (at BCCC) of being taught by a PhD with depth in the field is greater than at a large four-year institution.”

Jennings encourages parents to have honest conversations with their children as to what they really want to do with their lives.

“If there is some doubt in career direction or there’s a real interest in some type of trade work or, if their child has an affinity for English but not in math where some strengthening is needed, the community college route is a very good place to spend some quality time — and frankly, to find great financial value as well,” he said. “Two or three years away from that preliminary conversation, there’s likely a clearer path for both parent and child.”

Supporting a family minus the debt

Kelleway said she feels the message is slowly but surely getting out about the many readily available, more than family-sustaining wage occupations that do not require bachelor’s degrees or above.

“There is a trend towards career preparedness and technical education moving across Pennsylvania and the rest of the country,” she said. “Generationally, people are starting to consider that a community college might be the better alternative to exploring their options.”

The team at BCCC, Kelleway said, thinks its important to reduce the dual pressures of making a career choice and figuring out how to pay for it.

“You can always change your mind and go back to school and finish up your bachelor’s or get that MBA, but ideally, why not position yourself to have an employer pay for it?” Kelleway asked rhetorically.

The Estée Lauder model

Over the past year, BCCC has solidified a uniquely innovative partnership with the Estée Lauder Companies. ELC operates extensive manufacturing and distribution operations in Bristol.

The company has donated $200,000 to BCCC to help fund scholarships for students at Bucks with an expressed interest in supply chain management.

Participating students complete their two-year associate degree at Bucks and an optional four-year bachelor degree at partnering Temple University all while getting on-the-job experience and salary.

Jennings says proudly, “I think we’re ahead of the curve with this model while still maintaining our great strengths on the academic side of the institution.”

Credit where credit is due

BCCC, Jennings said, has indeed had great success on the academic college transfer side of the equation.

The difficulties students face in transferring between colleges is one of the more significant obstacles for continuing on to earning higher degrees. Students can lose more than 40% of their credits when they attempt to make the move between schools.

Just this past November, BCCC was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as having achieved the highest student transfer-out rates in Pennsylvania, besting the commonwealth’s 14 other community colleges.

Four campuses — not three

When asked about BCCC’s unique history with online education, Jennings admonishes himself. “I should have stated at the outset that we actually have four campuses, not three, with our robust online presence being another critical landing site for us.”

Kelleway could not agree more.

“This college has been a leader in accessible online education for over 30 years which is an amazing accomplishment,” she said. “I came here about 21 years ago and, already, there was a flourishing fully virtual program providing online-earned degrees.”

This cutting-edge digital learning presence left BCCC unusually prepared, she said, to carry on when COVID-19 hit.

These two BCCC leaders try hard not to simply be reactive in refreshing curriculum and developing a relevant inventory of offerings for the next generation.

Says Kelleway, “We look at labor market trends and analysis via an excellent institutional research department that digs deep along with our numerous advisory boards, helping us look ahead to identify where future needs may lie.”

But the end goal for community colleges like Bucks is simple: to meet people where they are, at whatever age, at whatever stage of their lives, and offer a bespoke pathway that will work for each of them.

“Trading Up,” the Herald’s three-week series on the popularity of vocational and technical training in Bucks County, was funded by a Foundation Fellows Grant from the PA NewsMedia Association.


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