What Lies Ahead for American Community Colleges?

American Association of Community College Presidents Academy
Summer Institute
Asheville, NC

Facilitator: James L. Morrison

July 11, 2011

We live in an age of future shock. Globalization, economic restructuring, advances in information technology, shifting demographics, the need for more (and differently) educated workers, including reskilling displaced workers, and increasing competition from traditional and emerging education providers means that community college leaders are faced with a future that most assuredly will be different from the present. The accelerating rate, magnitude, and complexity of change occurring in all sectors of global society have created vulnerabilities and opportunities across the higher education "tableau." It is no exaggeration to say that, in total, these forces hold the potential for rethinking the mission, structure, curriculum, pedagogical models, and stakeholder relations of community colleges. A leader’s analysis of the organization's environment has got to be razor-sharp in accurately assessing the opportunities and threats that this changing environment poses for their institution and in developing the strategic policies necessary to adapt to this environment.


The purpose of this workshop is to identify critical events that will impact the future of community colleges and draw out some of the major implications of these potential events for America’s community colleges.


Please review the following publications prior to the workshop:

  1. Mack, T. "An Interview with a Futurist." Futures Research Quarterly, 2003, 19 (1), 61-69
  2. Morrison, J. L. (1996). "Teaching in the Twenty-First Century." On the Horizon, 4(5).
  3. The Horizon Report (2011). The New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative. PDF download.
  4. Morrison, J. L. (2011). Higher Education in Transition. Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah Distinguished Speakers Series Lecture, Sunway University, Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia.
  5. Did You Know? (2008).

    We will begin the workshop with observations on how we can anticipate the future, which serves as an introduction to linking potential external developments to internal decision-making. External analysis is a major step in a strategic management/planning process. For more information about this process, read "Strategic Management in the Context of Global Change" (Morrison & Wilson, 1996) and "Analyzing Environments and Developing Scenarios for Uncertain Times" (Morrison & Wilson, 1997).

    We only have three hours for this workshop. However, this is sufficient time for you to gain experience in external analysis to the point that you will be able to replicate the workshop on your campus.



    Anticipating the Future

    8:15 - 8:40

    Task 1: Identifying potential events that would affect the future of community colleges

    8:40 - 8:55

    Task 2: Prioritizing events

    9:55 - 9:15

    Task 3: Defining signals of the most critical event

    9:15 - 9:30

    Task 4: Deriving implications of the most critical event

    9:30 - 9:50

    Task 5: Given the implications of the most critical event, formulate recommended actions for community college leaders to consider now

    9:50 - 10:40 

    Reportbacks and Wrap-up

    Exercise Description

    Events are unambiguous and confirmable. When they occur, the future is different. External event identification and analysis is critical in planning.

    It is important that an event statement be unambiguous; otherwise, it is not helpful in the planning process because (a) it is unclear what may be meant by the statement (i.e., different people may understand the statement differently) and (b) we have no clear target that allows us to derive implications and action steps. For example, consider the following event statement: There will be significant changes in political, social, and economic systems in the U.S. Each person on a planning team may agree with this statement, but may also interpret it differently. It would be far more useful in analysis for a statement like: "In the next election, the political right gains control of Congress." Or "Minorities become the majority in 10 states." These statements are concrete, unambiguous, and signal significant change that could impact community colleges.

    We will conduct this exercise in small groups using the Nominal Group Process.  


    Task 1. The first task is to identify those potential external events in the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political sectors, local through global, that would change the future of the college if they occurred.

    Task 2. When I call time, you will prioritize the events by using paste-on dots. Vote for five of the most critical events that affect community colleges that have some probability of occurrence within the next decade.

    • Do not be concerned about the event being high or low probability; be concerned only about the severity of the impact (positive or negative).
    • Do not put more than one dot on one event statement.
    • Put all dots by the beginning of the event statement (so that we can quickly see the frequency distribution of dots)

    Task 3. The next part of the exercise is to identify the signals that your top event (as indicated by the frequency distribution of votes) could occur.

    Task 4. When you have done this, derive the implications of that event for the college. In other words, assume that this event occurs. What would happen to your college as a result of its occurrence?

    Task 5. The final task is to develop recommendations as to what community colleges should consider doing now in anticipation of this event occurring. Again, do not be concerned about the probability of occurrence of the event. Let's see what recommendations you invent, and then examine the recommendations to see if they make sense to implement regardless of whether the event occurs or not. One outcome of this exercise is the creation of plans that we could not have conceived without going through the process, but, when we examine the plans, make sense to begin implementing now.

    Reportbacks and Wrap-up

    We have about 50 minutes for reportbacks. Each group reporter will report the three most critical events his/her group identified, the signals that support the occurrence of the top event, the implications of the event for community colleges, and recommendations as to what community college leaders should do now.
    [Note: presentation slides, a video of the workshop, and a video of the work produced during the workshop are available in the conference section where the AACC Presidents Academy Summer Institute is described (see]

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