Jacquelyn Elliott, Ed.D.
From the time she was a student herself, Jacquelyn Elliott, Ed.D., challenged the status quo. Where few went to college in her community; she did. When she could’ve settled into a stable job in her career; she chose instead to grow. And when higher education institutions needed change; she chose to lead the charge. Today, one year into her leadership role at Central Arizona College, she is doing it again. And this time, she not only aims to position the community college for a sustainable future, but hopes to be part of a movement to reshape the fabric of all college in the future to better serve students.
Interview by Bea Lueck
GC LIVING: Good morning. We’re here with Jacquelyn Elliot, Ed.D., the President and CEO of Central Arizona College. Thank you for joining us today.
Dr. Elliott: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it very much.
GC LIVING: We’re going to start at the very beginning. I see that you grew up on the Iowa tribe reservation. Are you Native American?
Dr. Elliott: My dad is a Native American and my mom is Caucasian. I did grow up on the Iowa tribe reservation outside of Hiawatha, Kansas, so I always say, “My hometown is Hiawatha, Kansas,” but actually, it was eight miles outside of town, so … I couldn’t really consider that living in the town. I grew up on a small little farm on the reservation and lived in a HUD home. Neither of my parents attended college, so I would have been considered a first-generation low- income student.
Although my parents wanted my brother and sister and me to go to college, they really did not have the ability, the wherewithal, to talk to us about actually going to college. In high school, my counselors never really talked to me about college. I think they made the assumption – and it was a fair assumption at the time, particularly during that day and age – that I wouldn’t probably be college material. I had a poor family; we had commodity food; we lived on the reservation and neither parent went to college.
So there were some stereotypical pre-assumptions that a lot of people made. My junior year of high school, my cousin invited me to a meeting with the Upward Bound program, which is a TRiO Program that is designed to really help, low-income first-generation students find colleges and go to colleges. [Editor’s note: TRiO Programs are federal outreach and student services programs through the U.S. Department of Education. They are designed to find and provide services to people from disadvantaged backgrounds] So, I joined Upward Bound my junior year of high school, and it was through that program, that the counselors and the advisors introduced me to the concept of going to college. It was the first time I was ever treated as college-going material, so they helped me do all the paperwork and enroll in college.
I owe a great debt and gratitude to the federal TRiO Programs, and in particular, that Upward Bound program. I was honored last year to receive the national alumni award recognition and that puts me in the class with (local TV reporter/anchor) John Quiñones and other really great people, but in all reality, Upward Bound and TRiO Programs should be recognized for saving me.
So, after college, that’s kind of what led me to finding out a way to give back and working in higher education. When I graduated from college, it was with a bachelor’s degree in English…it’s kind of a useless degree. In particular, nobody is hiring people with a bachelor’s degree in English, but I was lucky enough to move back home, because I couldn’t find a job.
One day my dad came in with an ad for an English reading specialist at Highland Community College, which is basically a glorified tutor, and I applied, and I was hired. I really liked helping students with their English papers and their reading, and I didn’t really know that there was even a career that you could do that job. I had the most wonderful boss, Dave Rice, who would come in – he’s the president of Highland Community College now in Highland, Kansas – but he came in one day, and he said, “Jackie, would you like to do academic advising?” And I said, “sure,” even though I didn’t know how to do it. So, I became an advisor and then I was an admissions recruiter and I did campus activities. I lived in the residence hall, and so while I was at Highland College for about five years, I really had the opportunity to do lots of different areas of what we call today Student Affairs, or Student Services.
I always say I fell into my career my happenstance. So at that particular time, I was also teaching English and reading for the college. I always say those students need a refund, because I was barely 22 years old and I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I started working on my master’s degree in English, because I really thought, “Yeah, I want to teach. I really enjoy teaching students.” So, I started working on my master’s degree in English to become a teacher in college. Then, I moved to Omaha and I had a great opportunity to work at Creighton University as the director of TRiO Programs.
GC LIVING: So you went from Concordia to Fort Hayes?
Dr. Elliott: Concordia is where I got my bachelor’s degree. And then, when I was working at Highland Community College, I started working on my master’s degree at Northwest Missouri State University, which is kind of a funny story, because I eventually went to work at Northwest Missouri State University. I finished my master’s degree in English at Fort Hayes State University, and that was after I worked at Creighton University as the director of TRiO for several years.
And then, I moved back to Kansas and I was at Barton County Community College as the director of Student Services, director of TRiO programs, and eventually became a vice president while I was there, because I was there 10 years. But while I was at Barton County, I finished my master’s degree in English at Fort Hayes State University. I always had the intention to teach, but I kept ending up in leadership positions in student affairs. And so while I was at Barton County, I started working on my doctorate in higher education administration and leadership, and I finished that when I was a vice president at Northwest.
So, I obviously I can’t keep a job (Laughs) around a lot. But there was intentionality in some of my later moves. Anyway, I have my bachelor’s degree from Concordia University in English, a master’s degree from Fort Hayes State University in English, and my doctorate from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in higher education administration and leadership.
GC LIVING: One of the places I see on my notes is North Arkansas. What did you do there?
Dr. Elliott: Well, I worked at Barton County for 10 years, and I went to Northwest Missouri State University and worked there as a vice president in Student Affairs for five years. I had the most incredible president, who was also a mentor. And I was in about my third year into my position at Northwest, when Dr. Dean Hubbard pulled me aside and he said, “Have you ever thought about being a college president?” And I said, “Well, you know, I don’t know, there are some things I still need to learn, some skill sets I still want to work on.” He goes, “I really feel like that would be a good role for you.”
And I admire Dr. Hubbard extremely. He retired probably about my third year into working at Northwest Missouri State University. And we got a new president, and I worked with him for about a year-and-a-half, and I realized that, you know, maybe he and I have different values and different approaches to higher education, so that’s when I said, “I think I’m going to try this president’s thing that Dr. Hubbard wanted me to do,” and I applied for the presidency at North Arkansas College. I was selected and I was there for five years before coming to CAC, so that was my first go at being a college president.
GC LIVING: What do you think influenced you in life the most along your journey growing up?
Dr. Elliott: I think my colleagues who I have worked with. I’m a very open-to-feedback kind of person. I believe there’s always room for improvement, not only in your personal life but also in your work life. And, I worked with some amazing people along the way, in particular, my friend, Kathy Oshiro, who taught me how to write grants and pushed me and challenged me. I worked with her at Barton County for many years, and she really would never let me get comfortable. She would say, “You need to try this,” or “You need to do this,” or “You write this grant.”
And then, Dr. Hubbard, I think, pushing me. But I think the thing that probably most influenced me is my intentionality of surrounding myself with people who pushed me to go above and beyond and try something new and to step outside of my comfort zone. And, always having people that say, “You know, good job Jackie,” but also go, “Hmm Jackie, you really messed that up. What would you do differently?” I think that has really helped push me and drive me.
GC LIVING: Looking back, is there anything you regret? You said you really wanted to teach. Do you miss not teaching?
Dr. Elliott: I do miss teaching, a lot. Until I went to Northwest Missouri State, I always taught part-time. So, I do miss teaching, but then I realized that part of my job as a president is to coach and teach others. And that’s probably the most rewarding thing, you know? I had a situation the other day where somebody had sent me an Excel spreadsheet, and they had put it together in a way that I probably would have put it together. This person had never really used Excel before, and I had that, “Oh! Look! She’s learned this and she’s doing this,” proud mama moment, that proud teacher moment. And so I learned kind of, over the years, to parlay that desire to teach and coach into coaching and teaching and developing others. I don’t have any regrets. I don’t believe you should live life with regrets. I also don’t use the words “failure” or “mistakes.” I use “learning opportunities” instead, because I think everything is a learning opportunity.
GC LIVING: So now you’re here at CAC. What were some of the challenges you encountered when you began – just about a year ago today?
Dr. Elliott: A year ago, yeah. I think one of the biggest challenges is our reputation in the greater community. We had not been responsive to our community, as a community college, to our business and industry partners. We had people in the community who were not very particularly fond of the tax situation at CAC. We kind of were a victim of our own success, in that the way we’re funded, as a community college, really puts us in a fairly good position compared to across the nation, because the states don’t fund community colleges anymore. We’re state-located, but we’re not state-supported. But because we’re in a county that’s a pretty strong county, that’s a growing county, and we’re funded on home valuations, we had some stable funding.
So I think that was, in particular, a challenge, because nobody wants their taxes raised, and I get that and I understand that. But I think as a college, we didn’t maybe balance, you know, public perception and public needs with our own needs. And think that’s a big challenge right now – we didn’t raise taxes this year, and we’re definitely looking at finding efficiencies. We have a lot of efficiencies we can gain at Central Arizona College. I didn’t fill about five administrative positions. We just didn’t need them. So, I think one of our biggest challenges is that we need to prove to our taxpayers and our residents that we can be good stewards of their dollars, rather than just being spendthrifts.
The other challenge that we had besides reputation and really building relationships with business and industry, was each of our campuses serve a different community, but we’ve tried to be all things to all people at every campus. It’s just not sustainable. It’s not a good business model, so our next challenge is really deciding what is the right academic mix at each campus? What should we be offering at Maricopa? What should we be offering at San Tan? Because we want each campus to be sustainable on its own, as far as the academic programs that make sense for that community. Right now, we have students who drive between Maricopa and Signal Peak and that’s not being student-friendly. We need to make sure that if students need to attend the Maricopa campus, that we offer everything they need right there, whether it’s online or face-to-face, so that they’re not driving back and forth. So that becomes another opportunity for us as a college.
And the next is workforce development – really working with our employers and finding out, “What is the skill set that you need, and are we training people for that skill set?”
GC LIVING: Right now, how many academic and certificate programs does CAC offer?
Dr. Elliott: 159 degrees and certificates. It’s way too many for an institution our size, and that goes back to what I was saying about trying to be everything to everybody. We need to figure out what core academic programs we’re really good at, and what are really needed, and focus on those.
GC LIVING: CAC has had a longstanding relationship with NAU, offering a four-year degree in education at the campus…
Dr. Elliott: Yes.
GC LIVING: Is that something you want to encourage and expand on?
Dr. Elliott: Absolutely, and you know, you hit on something – we can’t grow that partnership when you’re trying to do 15 things. You can’t do any one of them well. And I think with NAU, we have two extremely strong partnerships, and that’s the education program and our RN to BSN, where students can stay right here and finish their bachelor’s in nursing degree. I think instead of having 30 programs with NAU, we really need to pare that down into five or six really strong ones, and put more resources into those. And teacher education is a huge one right now, because there’s a huge teacher shortage in this area. When I talk to the superintendents, they’re like, “We need more teachers. We’re losing teachers to the Valley and to Tucson.” A lot of that has to do with the pay, which I really don’t have much influence over, but we really need to grow those programs, and that’s definitely one of our stronger programs with NAU.
GC LIVING: What other employer partnerships does Central Arizona College have?
Dr. Elliott: Right now, we are working with Sundt Construction to build an apprenticeship program. Basically, we have built a whole curriculum, in particular, for Sundt Construction. Our students can obtain a construction certificate, concrete construction certificate and an apprenticeship certificate relevant to industry needs. Through this partnership, we also edited our current heavy equipment operators certificate to fast-track to the industry. For each of these certificates, students will leave CAC with OSHA and NCCER national certifications in addition to their college certificates. As well, the industry also vetted the curriculum in CAC’s structural welding and pipe welding to ensure workforce relevance. This is a really unique and historic type of approach, because typically in higher education, I’d meet with you and say, “What are your workforce needs?” And then I’d go over here and build a program that I think you might need, but that might also train students for different things, and then they come out with a skill set, and you’re like, “Well, they’re kind of lacking this or that, but I’ll hire them anyway.” Because we’ve built a program that was generic and not, maybe, designed for what you need. With Sundt, we sat down with them and they have picked the classes, they have picked the skill set. They have said, “I want OSHA 30 embedded in this course.” And we’ve sat across the table and built this program special to Sundt Construction. We really think that’s the future of higher education. We did the same thing with LUCID Motors. We built the program that they wanted, side-by-side, sitting down and their representative saying, “I want this class, in this sequence. I would say Central Arizona College is unique in doing this, but when I arrived, we really kind of, again, didn’t have an identity. We’re trying to be everything to everybody.
I was talking to the department chair for the program that we built for LUCID Motors, and the one that we had at CAC that would’ve been similar to that was dying on the vine. We had maybe six students in it. Now, the one we built for LUCID has over 45 students in it.
So, it’s really just kind of redesigning how we design our programs, and I think we’re getting invited to go and talk about what we’ve done with LUCID and what we’re doing with Sundt, on the national front, because people are like, “How are you doing that?” and “Why are you doing that?” And the reason we’re doing it is because we are the community’s college, and we are supposed to be responsive to what our community needs, not sitting back in our ivory tower saying, “We think we know what you need,” which is a typical higher education approach.
It is really exciting times. Now, I would also say that it’s a lot of work, because what Sundt is needing and what we’re doing for them is completely different from what we’ve built for LUCID and what we’re building for a couple of other employers right now. None of them look the same, from start of the program to hire. But that’s OK, you know? We’re really enjoying this work right now.
GC LIVING: What does your typical student look like? Is it the 18-year-old coming out of high school, or is it the older second-career individual?
Dr. Elliott: Our average age is 28, which is fairly high for a community college. Nationally, the average age at a community college is around 22. So, we are seeing a lot of people who come back after maybe they’ve done one career, and they’re coming back for retraining for a different career. We have a lot of part-time students, which is somewhat troubling to me, because we really need to design our program so students can go full time, because part-time just means you’re here longer. However, most of our traditional-age students, those coming right out of high school, do come full-time.
GC LIVING: Central Arizona College has always been somewhat unique for a community college. I don’t know of any other junior college that has dorms, but yet, CAC does. What other things make CAC unique in the collegiate world?
Dr. Elliott: Well, the residential housing is unique as well as athletics. We have a very strong athletic program there. Our athletic programs are known across the nation as being very successful. I think we have a great opportunity because, technically, we might be considered a rural community college, because we’re not in an urban setting, but we have five campuses, and each campus community that our campuses serve is very different.
When I look at community colleges across the nation, I can’t think of any that have five campuses and very unique communities that they serve. And I think it’s a great opportunity for us as a college to reinvent ourselves and give us an identity, not only regionally, but nationally as, “Look at that community college. They’ve really aligned what they’re doing for the unique communities they serve.”
But that was also something that, attracted me to Central Arizona College is those opportunities. I really feel like this is a diamond in the desert – that we can polish it off and people will be like, “Wow. They figured it out.”
GC LIVING: Have you experienced challenges for the incoming high school student? Do they really fit the academic entry level? Or, do you do a lot of remediation?
Dr. Elliott: We do. But now that, you’ve got me on my soapbox, I think the way we design our academic programs sets students up for failure. And when I say “we” I’m talking about higher education in general. And I use this analogy a lot – Have you ever eaten at the Cheesecake Factory?
GC LIVING: Yes.
Dr. Elliott: And how do you feel when you open the menu?
GC LIVING: A little overwhelmed.
Dr. Elliott: Extremely, and that’s the college catalog. We have all these college classes in here, and we throw you in your first year into English and math, and nothing that interests you. And so you become disengaged, because it’s not hands-on; it’s not project-based. You don’t know where it’s going.
So, I say we need to adopt the Chipotle model, where students come in and you’re going to get a taco, a burrito, a bowl or a salad. And the analogy is that you’re on a science, technology, engineering pathway, and that first year you’re going to get some classes in engineering or in technology that interest you. Or you’re on a health careers pathway. And this is the guided pathways model that I’m a big believer in – it’s where students know from start-to-finish what pathway they’re on and what classes they need, instead of a whole spattering of classes everywhere, and you pick and choose. It’s really a structured academic pathway.
I think if we design our programs that way, yes, I think high school students are prepared. They want hands-on, technology-infused, project-based learning. They don’t want me standing up in front of the classroom lecturing to them.
And so, I really feel like we have to (Laughs) reinvent everything we do in higher education – from the way we design our academic programs to the way that we deliver the content. And that sage on the stage who knows everything and pontificates and students are supposed to listen to a lecture, those days are over.
Unfortunately, we still have teachers who teach that way. And so, I think that’s our biggest challenge. I’m happy to be part of a college that’s ready to take on that challenge – that wants to adopt designing academic programs in a structured way, so that students can kind of see what they’re doing.
GC LIVING: So, do you see the days of 100, 200, 300-student lecture halls going away?
Dr. Elliott: They’re going to go away. They need to go away. Our students today, the Millennials or post-Millennials, they can do six things at one time. You know, they could be on their phone, listening to music and doing homework, and watching TV. They’re a multitasking generation, and they’re used to having technology in their hands from the time they’re 5 years old. And they’re not afraid of it. So, with their attention spans, they need project-based learning.
Now, back to your question about remediation, I would love to see – and we’re moving in this direction – that we don’t offer any remedial courses. There’s this belief that every degree program needs College Algebra, and that’s kind of the old models. Everybody needs to take College Algebra. Well, you really only need College Algebra if you’re going to take Calculus, and you only need Calculus if you’re on a science, technology, engineering or mathematics pathway, but not if you’re going to be an English teacher. You don’t need College Algebra.
And so, now we’re looking at different maths for different academic programs. I think higher education is kind of finally catching on, but it’s going to have to be hands-on, technology-infused learning.
And, I said this one day once at a national conference, and you should have heard the gasps in the room, but it’s the truth. It was that we, as educators, are no longer the pontificators of knowledge. Students can find out how to do anything on YouTube. But, what we need to be, is facilitators of learning, and helping students pick what resources they use to learn what they need to learn, rather than I tell them, using a chalkboard, that a comma goes here, because it’s before a coordinating conjunction, you know? That’s just not the way students are going to learn in the 21st Century.
GC LIVING: There’s been some controversy surrounding some of the closures and cuts when CAC announced closing the swimming pool, which was basically the community pool on the north side of town, as well as cuts to the programs at The Pence Center for the Performing Arts. What do you do to overcome the negative perceptions associated with changes like that?
Dr. Elliott: Some of those changes are (attributed to) we don’t always communicate very well as a college the reason why (things are done). Now, I’m a big believer in, “OK, yeah, maybe we close the pool.” But I get really discouraged, because people always go to the negative and they don’t see the possibilities. I’m going to talk about the pool a little bit. The pool is a huge liability. We had students who would climb over the wall in the middle of the night and swim, and you know, that’s just a huge liability.
But, OK, maybe we’re going to close the pool, but why don’t we focus our efforts on finding the funding and raising money to build an indoor recreation center at CAC that has an indoor pool that the community could use? Why don’t we, when one door closes, make another door open? And we didn’t have a conversation and we could have done that. We could have said, “Hey, we need to close the pool, but here’s what we want to build. We want to build a rec center that has a walking track in it for the community and an indoor pool, and we’re going to work on some funding for that, whether through grants or working with the community.
So, we could have really found a positive silver lining, and I think there’s still an opportunity for it for us as a college. When it came to the arts program, there’s a lot more to the story. Right now, we were having students, if they tried out for a play and got a part, we would say, “Enroll in theatre, and pay $89 tuition for a class that doesn’t count toward a degree and doesn’t transfer.”
And, “Oh, by the way, you’re probably going to run out of financial aid, because if you do four plays, you’re going to end up with all these credits that you don’t need, and you’re going to leave us with more than 60 hours, and half of them won’t transfer.” So the whole movement was to move toward – and in fact, this is a better possibility for us – we’re going to hire a Director of Arts at CAC who will run the Pence Center, but also that person’s responsibility is to do two community productions a year and two student productions a year.
And so we’re going to continue to have plays, but I’m not going to make you, as a student pay $89. Actually, it would be over $300 of tuition dollars, just because you want to act in a play.
GC LIVING: So the arts program is not dead at Central Arizona College?
Dr. Elliott: No.
GC LIVING: We can still enjoy plays and musicals and other performances?
Dr. Elliott: I think it’s going to be bigger and better, because we had students that didn’t try out for the play because they’re already enrolled in 15 hours and they didn’t want to have to take more hours, and you know, I had students say, “Well I never tried out, because I didn’t want to have to enroll and pay tuition to act in a play.”
GC LIVING: It’s a big difference whether I want to have a degree in performing arts or theatre, versus I just like getting up on stage periodically.
Dr. Elliott: Absolutely. And, you know, CAC is not the place for you to get the degree in fine arts. If you want a degree in fine arts, then you need to go to a private liberal arts college, because that’s what they do, and that’s what they do well. And the students say, “Are you saying I shouldn’t be at CAC?” And I say, “I am, and I’ll help you transfer, and I’ll help you look for scholarships.” But we all know that private liberal arts colleges, like the one I attended, that’s what they do. They do the arts, and they do them very well. That’s not the role or the mission of a community college.
And over the years, one of the things that community college has done is we’ve lost sight of our mission and we’ve turned ourselves into little universities. And that’s not who we are, and that’s not what we’re supposed to be. The community college mission – it came out of the G.I. Bill in the 1960s – we were designed to open our doors to anyone and everyone to come and learn a skill, and for the military to come back and learn a skill and go to work.
So we were really started as a two-year degree to HVAC, welding, you know, auto technician and nursing studies. We were designed to be a two-year granting of a skill set for people to go to work. Then over the years we said, “We can do the first two years of a bachelor’s degree, the basics,” and that makes sense, and that works for us.
But then we said, “Oh, let’s do a program in arts, and let’s do a program in this,” and we’ve turned ourselves into little universities and that’s not who we are. I’ve worked at two universities, and I’ve worked at three community colleges. And community colleges are designed to provide an employable skill that can help someone go and make a living wage, and/or the first two years of transfer and not full academic programs, and not offering courses that don’t transfer.
And so that’s kind of what we’ve done to ourselves. And I say “we,” because I see it across the nation. I see a lot of community colleges have turned themselves into little universities, and that’s not who we are. So, do I think we should have a vibrant performing arts program? Absolutely. Do I think we should have an academic program in performing arts? No. It just doesn’t make sense, and we didn’t have one anyway. That was a misconception.
GC LIVING: Do you view it as more of a release from academics and relaxation for the students to be able to go act in a play?
Dr. Elliott: Well, I think any co-curricular activity is good for students. And, I put plays in that category; I put being in a band in that category and I put doing athletics in that category. We don’t make students take college level credit courses to participate in sports. And for some of them, that’s a release. We have students involved in student government, student leadership. We don’t make them enroll in a credit bearing course for their release. And so we offer community education, Zumba classes and yoga classes for students to do that release.
But I think that we have to get away from this mindset that college is a place where students can go and explore. I mean, I don’t want to go explore myself and have to give somebody money to do that. If I want to do a release in a play, I should be able to do that without having to pay to do it. If you sit and talk with students, they’re like, “Tell me what I need to take so that I can get a degree.” No student walks in the door of Central Arizona College and says, “I want to spend $2,000 per year, and walk away with nothing in hand that has any meaning.” And 29% of our students do that. They come and spend, or we scholarship them, to leave us with nothing. It would be like me walking into Walmart and giving them money and leaving with no groceries or no goods.
And so we have to really get away from that mindset, and it’s a hard one. Because the liberal arts movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s was all about, “Go to college, and experience college life.” And less than half of the people who go to college leave with a degree. That tells you something’s broken.
I recognize I’m an outlier in my thinking, but it just kind of makes sense to me that if a student is going to come and someone’s going to scholarship them, you want that student to leave with something that helps them get a job or that they’re able to transfer with junior status.
GC LIVING: So what’s your five-year plan for CAC? Where do you see the college going?
Dr. Elliott: I see each campus developing its own identity and right academic mix. I see us becoming a leader in how to design curriculum for employers and partnerships. I see us growing our capacity and capabilities in each campus so that we have a stable and steady enrollment of students at the campuses. I think that’s a pretty big thing. It’s not going to happen in five years. There’s no way we’re going to be able to get our academic mix right at every campus in five years.
It’s a constant evolution. It’s going to be a constant evolution. Do I think we can do it? Absolutely. Is it a lofty goal and vision? Yes. I also see the vision for the college. I hope that we become known across the nation as an institution where over 80 percent of our students graduate within two years and, of those who transfer, 90 percent transfer with junior status. They are big goals, but I think we can do that. And I think we should do that. I just don’t feel that we want to be known as an institution where only 29 percent of our students leave with a degree or certificate. Even if you’re going to transfer, you should leave with a degree or certificate from CAC.
GC LIVING: Funding, of course, is the challenge along the way. How do you see the mix of property taxes, grants and student tuition?
Dr. Elliott: Well, we’re lucky, because Pinal County is a growing county. So every time a new house goes up or a new business comes in, that helps us as a college. I think it’s a balance between finding efficiencies. (For example,) we go from 159 to 60 degrees in certificates. There’s a huge savings already there. What happened in 2008 and 2009 across the nation is the economy went like this (makes downward gesture) and when the economy tanks, people go back to college. So, our enrollment spiked in 2009 and ‘10. And when your enrollment spikes unexpectedly, what’s the first thing you do?
GC LIVING: Hire more people.
Dr. Elliott: You hire more people. Now we’re back down to where we were pre-spike, across the nation, and what have we done?
GC LIVING: You still have those people working …
Dr. Elliott: We still have all those people. And so, as we start to cull through that, we will have those saves. We are overstaffed as an institution, and we have the opportunity to, through attrition when people leave us, really think about if a course is something we want to continue to offer? Do we really need this many part-time people? We’ve run classes with three and four students in them, which is kind of a problem, because you need at least 12 students in a class to even break even. We have to run our college more like a business. That was what the board told me when they hired me, “We want you to run the college more like a business.” And if we run the college more like a business, the funding, the tuition and efficiencies gained, we are definitely going to be in a better position than most community colleges across the nation now, because we don’t rely on state funding. And, it’s going to go away, and I’m planning for that.
GC LIVING: Where do you see the growth happening with the college? Is it the Signal Peak Campus? Is it Aravaipa? Is it San Tan, Maricopa or Apache Junction?
Dr. Elliott: I’m not really focused on growing enrollment. I’m focused on figuring out the capacity and capabilities for each campus that makes sense for those communities. The enrollment growth is going to come from the San Tan area, maybe some in Maricopa. I think we can grow our enrollment at Aravaipa if we put the right academic programs up there. Right now, we don’t have a program at all that attracts students to that campus, a single program. And I think that campus lends itself really well to maybe drone technology or welding. Maybe something with environmental science, because we have a lot of Alabaster up there at that campus and mining and ecosystem-type questions, when it comes to the mines, and I think that campus could be a really good botany campus or science.
I’m a big believer if you put the right thing in the right place for the right outcome, people will come, and that it isn’t just about building. It’s what’s going to attract people to those programs at those campuses. And I think, when we do that, all of our campuses will be very attractive to students and employers, based on what we’re offering there. Does that make sense?
GC LIVING: It does. So are you here for the long haul?
Dr. Elliott: You know, it’s funny. My son was just here. He goes to college in Missouri, and he was here for two weeks, and he asked me, “Mom, how long is going to take you to do everything that you want to do at CAC?” And I said, “Probably eight years.” I want to be here eight to 10 years, and as long as the community and the college still want me, because I want to see it through. When I arrived at North Arkansas, they had lots of challenges. They had financial challenges; they had accreditation challenges; they had things that had to get fixed right away. I said, “Well, this is going to take us about three years.” And we fixed it, and I was there five years, and we won some awards and then I was like, “OK, they don’t need me anymore.”
GC LIVING: The challenge was over.
Dr. Elliott: The challenge was over. The babies had grown up. You know, they don’t need me. So when I was looking for a new opportunity, I wasn’t looking for an institution with huge problems, financial problems or accreditation problems. I had been there and done that. I was looking for an institution that was really struggling with figuring out who they were and their identity, but had resources to be able to do that. And that was what attracted me to CAC. Now that I’ve been here a year, you know, and I see…it’s always easier from the outside to kind of see the potential and the possibilities. So, every morning I wake up seeing the potential and the possibility, and then I get to work and I see where we’re at, and I’m like, “It’s going to take us a while. This doesn’t happen overnight.” But I’m going to stay as long as we’re making the progress, and I think once we get there, you know, then maybe it will be time. But like I said, North Arkansas would be three years, and it was – three years righting the ship and two years getting it on the right path. It’s going to take us six to seven years to get on the right path here, which is kind of fun and exciting.
GC LIVING: I look forward to our next interview, where we’re looking back on all of these accomplishments that you’re envisioning.
Dr. Elliott: We’ve done a lot in a year, already. I mean, I was sitting with somebody the other day and we’ve already, in less than a year, developed two new academic programs that are growing and busting at the seams, and normally it takes three years to get an academic program through. So, you know, I’m really proud of the people at CAC. I’m grateful for the people we work with. We’re going to make changes, and people are going to be upset. People get upset when it impacts them and we have to say, “I understand that this might impact you personally, but this is what’s in the best interest of our students and our community.” Change is hard, and there are people already who aren’t happy with some of the change that’s happened, but if it’s the right thing to do. I always used to say, “I wasn’t hired to make everyone happy; I was hired to do the right thing by students.” And I think we have to start with the student in mind and do those things, but I think we can do it.