After the recession started in 2008, worried leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties said that community colleges, and the practical courses they teach, were key to turning around the economy, and key to helping jobless people in need of retraining.
But Jackie Vietti, who just announced she will retire in December after 17 years as president of Butler Community College, said this week that “in my 64 years of life, I’ve never discovered a silver bullet for anything.”
Vietti got good reviews from students and local employers, who said she made Butler a school where students young and old could get a good, practical education.
Vietti says anyone seeking education or retraining had better be ready to make hard choices. Many Butler students – juggling jobs, parenthood and other responsibilities – don’t finish what they start.
Before she leaves Butler, Vietti sat down to answer questions about job training, the workforce, nontraditional students and several other topics.
Q. What’s your enrollment?
A. Annually just under 15,000.
Q. What was it when you got here?
A. Probably about half that much.
Q. What changes in the world that students face occurred over those 17 years?
A. We are functioning in an increasingly global society, and even for students who are time- and place-bound, right here in the heart of America in south-central Kansas, they still need to understand how to function in a global society. That’s probably the biggest change.
Another huge change is not so much the advent of technology – we had technology when I came – but the advances in technology are on nearly a nanosecond-by-nanosecond basis. And (students must learn) how to adapt to the rapidity of the technological changes.
Q. What happened to the workforce since 2008?
A. People were forced to return to college to retrain. It was at that time that Butler experienced double-digit growth for a number of years.
Q. And how did it actually turn out for many of those people?
A. For some, it turned out quite well. I’m certain for others, it didn’t. Returning to train, or retrain, is not a guarantee that employment will follow.
In my 64 years of life, I’ve never discovered a silver bullet for anything. I think the community colleges have a vital role to play, but it’s not the magic elixir.
Q. What do young people need to do to better prepare themselves?
A. What we hear employers tell us: They need to be able to function effectively in a work setting. They need to be dependable, they need to be responsible, they need to know how to work effectively in teams. They need to act ethically, and with integrity. They also need to be able to problem-solve, to think analytically.
They need strong communications skills, orally as well as in writing. And sometimes we tend to forget the value of nonverbal communication (body language) and its impact on others; gestures or body language that conveys or misconveys attitude.
Q. So (employers) are telling you that some students coming out of here don’t necessarily have those skills?
A. Some do and some do not. And the last skill set area is technology. Not that the students must know absolutely everything, but they need to have some basic skills, and they need to be able to adapt.
Q. What do employers complain about?
A. Employees who don’t have the skill sets I just mentioned.
Q. What fields are good to get into?
Some of our more popular programmatic areas right now include advanced manufacturing technology, engineering technology, some areas of information technology, health care – and for us, that translates into nursing.
Our automotive technology and collision repair programs are always full. And certain areas of business are among our high-demand programs. Accounting is a good example of that. Marketing management. Hospitality management is another good one. One of the projected areas of growing employment is in the restaurant-hotel management, culinary area. And that’s part of why Butler is pursuing a culinary arts initiative to complement our hospitality management program.
Q. Do you have any recommendations for what high schools – teachers, principals – need to do differently?
A. We need to think in terms of the seamless education. So it isn’t just the K-12’s work to be done, it’s the K-12 work done in concert with higher ed.
If students as freshmen in high school are assessed for the gaps between college-ready work in English and math, as an example, then the work is focused on closing the gaps. And if they are assessed again for the gaps, towards the end of their sophomore year … the question becomes again, how can we work together to close the gaps?
As the seniors graduate, hopefully there are no gaps. But if there are, then I could envision the value of a summer bridge program between the end of the senior year and the beginning of the freshman year in college. So that those students don’t have to spend one, two, or three semesters getting college-ready. They can do it in a very short period of time.
Q. Are you seeing a lot of people come in not prepared?
A. Our percentage of students who require at least one developmental (remedial) course is around 62 to 65 percent. And that is not atypical for community colleges. That’s not just high school students, that’s the universe of our student enrollment, so that includes our nontraditional-age students as well. And I suspect that if you and I took a placement test for college algebra, we might need a little developmental work before we are placed.
Q. What do nontraditional-age students need to do better? What mistakes are they making that they need to correct before they come in here?
A. Whenever feasible, if they can find the means to be full-time students, that (a minimum of 12 hours) will facilitate their success. And I understand that’s easier said than done.
So if they can’t go that route, they at least need to understand the minimum amount of time they need to be prepared to invest, and are actually willing to make that time in a forced choice kind of setting, so that they are actively engaged inside the classroom and actively engaged outside the classroom in the learning process. We know from research that the more actively engaged students are both inside and outside the classroom, the higher their persistence rates are to goal.
Q. So are a lot of them frittering away their time by lack of focus and effort?
A. I wouldn’t call it fritter, that’s a disservice to the nontraditional students who are juggling multiple roles. I would say in some cases, they aren’t able or haven’t figured out yet how to make the necessity a forced choice. So school is among the top of their priorities.
Q. But there is a lack of focus, for whatever reason – motherhood, working two jobs? So their classroom work and performance suffers?
A. If they allow it to. I don’t want to be put in a box. I was a working adult with four children when I went back to earn my doctorate. I wouldn’t call me unfocused. But I did have to make some hard choices on occasion.
Q. So they really need to prioritize highly whatever classroom time they have?
A. They do. And going into it, they need to understand the commitment required. And if they have multiple roles in life – they work, they are a parent, they are caring for aging parents, and also going to school – on occasion, I understand that they’re going to have to place their schooling as a lower priority.
But at the end of the day, they have to have given college enough attention that they can be successful. It’s not enough only to sit in class three hours a week for a three-credit-hour class.
Q. If your passion is to be a writer, or an artist, or a teacher of literature, but you look over the jobs and fields you mentioned where things are good right now, how can you make it in this world if what the economy is demanding right now doesn’t match up with your passions?
A. “And” is better than “either/or.” All of us to a degree are at the mercy of the economy, and where the jobs are, and where the jobs aren’t. That’s just a reality to manage. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pursue our passions.
Q. Study both? Study writing and welding?
A. I think that’s what I’m saying. And we’ve had a number of students go through Butler and completed a number of short-term certificate courses, and use the income from employment as a result of those courses to pursue other passions.
Q. How can you stair-step your way through college? Through the economy?
A. You mentioned welding. So if a person has an affinity for welding and a training program like that, complete a one year or less certificate, become employed as a welder while perhaps pursuing a degree in art. You have a creative bent, and that’s where you ultimately want to end up.
Or if you care about people, earn your certified nurse aide certificate, and be hired as a nurse aide, and use the income from that to pursue the profession you’re interested in, which could be a degree in nursing, a degree in another health care field or something unrelated to health care.
Q. What else do people need to understand about how the world works nowadays?
A. In the past, a college degree virtually guaranteed employment, in a meaningful field with a meaningful wage. That landscape is changing. And what we hear employers say is, many of the jobs – especially in the technical fields – require some level of college education, but not necessarily a degree.
I urge us all to redefine the American dream: Not whether children should go to college, but which college they should attend. And not necessarily for a degree. Some of the higher-paying jobs of today are in technical fields.
Q. How many people are not finishing what they start?
A. We measure our degree completion rates, and we’re above the national average, but what that doesn’t take into account is the number of students who transfer on to a four-year school but don’t earn an associate degree. And the number of students who come with the intent of completing a certificate or an associate degree in a tech ed field, but get hired before they earn that credential.
The most recent federal report shows Butler at 24 percent and the national average at 22 percent. That percentage does not include students who transfer on before completing their associate degree and students who complete a certificate rather than degrees.
Q. So is it still true, what your parents said, that you really do need to pay attention in class, and study?
A. Isn’t that true wherever you go? On your job, don’t you need to pay attention and stay current?
Q. What do parents of young children need to do with their kids to prepare them?
A. They need to facilitate career exploration at the earliest stage possible so that children can understand the vast array of options available as soon as possible. And they can begin to winnow down the list and match their passions to chosen career fields.
They need to instill in their children not just the necessity but also the value of completing a college degree. Those states and regions of the country that have high levels of college attainment also have more thriving economies.