Training and Retaining Emerging Community College Leaders

Katherine Gonzalez
Leadership Abstracts

Developing the next generation of community college leaders may be a matter of survival (Asera, 2019). In 2001, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) sounded the alarm on a community college leadership crisis (Eddy & Garza Mitchell, 2017). Soon after, AACC conducted a leadership survey of community college CEOs which found that half of presidents expected to retire within six years. AACC’s follow-up study 15 years later found that the situation had gotten worse (Eddy & Garza Mitchell, 2017). In 2015, 80 percent of college chief executive officers planned to retire within 10 years (Phillippe, 2016). Top-level leaders in community colleges are not only aging, but also retiring in waves, with an average tenure of five to seven years (Eddy et al., 2016).

National attention has turned a spotlight on community colleges (Eddy et al., 2023), whose students represent 27 percent of all U.S. undergraduates (U.S. Census Bureau, 2024). The myriad challenges facing community college leaders have created a perfect storm (Eddy et al., 2023). Community colleges are experiencing their lowest enrollment in over 20 years (U.S. Census Bureau, 2024), the public is calling for increased transparency and financial accountability at a time when budgets are tight, and community colleges have been experiencing high turnover rates in senior-level leadership positions due to retirements over the past two decades (Eddy et al., 2023). According to Eddy, VanDerLinden, and Hartman (2023), meeting the needs of mid-level leaders is crucial to ensuring that students are effectively served through all these changes.

Amey et al. (2020) note that leadership research has historically focused on professionals with executive authority in community colleges. However, the authors argue that this tunnel vision can cause scholars to miss the perspectives of those in the best position to affect transformational change. These individuals are mid-level leaders who motivate frontline workers and make day-to-day decisions to keep colleges running smoothly (Amey et al., 2020). Emerging leaders are caught in the middle of the community college organizational hierarchy, reporting to senior administrators while also guiding entry-level staff (Bodine Al-Sharif et al., 2021). Emerging leaders are ideal candidates to make recommendations for college improvement due to their daily implementation and monitoring of college processes (Baber, 2020). Middle-level staff members are the largest nonacademic professional grouping in community colleges, which makes the lack of research specific to this group’s needs even more unfortunate (Eddy et al., 2023).

To address this gap in research, I conducted a professional study with 88 emerging leaders at the middle level of a community college in the Midwestern United States (Gonzalez, 2023). The research aimed to identify both the top competencies for career success and the most common training objectives for leadership development, taken directly from the minds of leaders themselves. (Click here to access the full manuscript with findings.)

Tips for Retaining Community College Leaders

This study was conducted in June 2022 via an open-ended survey. Participants were staff members with managerial or leader job responsibilities, including project coordinators, program administrators, directors, and specialists. Participants were neither entry level nor CEOs. Mid-level leaders in the study identified five recommendations for community college administrators to meet emerging leader needs.

Clear Communication Is a Must

High-level leaders must clearly articulate their intentions, expectations, and needs when making changes. Stakeholders must be well-informed or projects will not be correctly completed and conflict can arise. Team members can be left discontented, leading to turnover. Respondents clearly described the pitfalls of not communicating effectively.

  • Project will not be correctly implemented: “If objectives, outcomes, and/or goals are not communicated clearly, the tasks and/or projects may not be completed properly.
  • Conflict can arise: “If the leader does not communicate with her/his team well, the team will begin to work around the leader or talk amongst themselves, reducing respect for [the leader].”
  • Team members can be left discontented: “The needs of the team may go unfulfilled.”

Keep Processes Streamlined and Updated

The COVID-19 pandemic proved to participating mid-level leaders that even the most deeply entrenched processes can be changed. “The way we always have done it,” as survey respondents noted, is no longer appropriate to meet the needs of students and staff. Respondents provided concrete suggestions for reducing red tape.

To root out obsolete procedures, survey participants recommended auditing processes to eliminate unnecessary steps and remove underutilized software. Staff manuals and policies and procedures should be regularly checked by administrators for inconsistencies. Respondents suggested that colleges bolster their help desks and staff portals to add more self-service options and make user guides widely available for individuals to find information on their own.

Be Flexible

The pandemic also taught leaders in this study to be more accepting of variations from the standard 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. workday schedule, allowing direct reports to work earlier or later to accommodate family illness, childcare schedules, and other personal needs.

Increase Training on Institutional Policy

Respondents reported being thrust into new leadership roles without having the proper tools, specifically administering departmental budgets and understanding human resource policies such as paid time off, timesheet approval, and manager versus part-time staff member expectations. These emerging leaders provided suggestions for helpful future training topics (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Commonly Requested Policy and Procedure Training

Offer Virtual Alternatives to Students

Participants noted that students expect greater flexibility in a post-pandemic world. This has resulted in colleges offering virtual appointments with staff in addition to face-to-face meetings. Financial aid and other student processes are often completed online as well. Respondents reflected how this hybrid environment could afford a chance to work remotely at times, a factor which could make the higher education sector more attractive to potential new staff seeking a better work-life balance.

Recommendations for Future Research

This research study asked broad questions about leadership style, skills important for success, and what makes mid-level leaders passionate about working at a community college. Survey responses revealed clear findings related to respondents’ preferred leadership styles as well as the top skills that mid-level leaders find helpful for success. If this study is replicated and results in similar findings each time, validating the findings, the takeaways could be used to develop a framework to guide community college leaders at the middle level of their organization. Learning how emerging leaders develop may be a step toward identifying causal and practically relevant knowledge that could inform institutional policy in the future (Day et al., 2021).

More specifically, a follow-up study could focus on how mid-level leaders developed the key skills they cited in the original study. For example, survey or interview questions could ask for specific situations in which leaders displayed effective mastery of the skills, or problems that may have arisen due to deficiency in a skill. These responses could help to provide the practical learning experiences and case studies needed for truly relevant leadership training. Leaders could also be asked to describe their personal evolutionary process in developing top skills, both practical learning and any formal training they may have received. In addition, survey questions could touch upon the development of mid-level leaders’ leadership styles, such as the personal and environmental factors present at that level of community colleges which affect a leader’s style. In a similar way to the Eddy et al. (2023) study, both mid-level and senior-level staff members could be included in the study and their responses could be compared.

A separate study focused on collecting mid-level leaders’ feedback and perspectives on leadership development could inform experiential learning activities. In this study, researchers could ask mid-level leaders to provide examples of collaborative or servant leadership in the field, the two most commonly cited leadership styles among the participants in my research. Such a qualitative study could ask participants to describe real-world dilemmas that they are confronting currently so that trainees can strategize how to solve the problem as part of a leadership workshop (Bass & Avolio, 1990). Participants could provide feedback on their preferred format for training or describe the design of past leadership trainings that were especially useful.

Alternatively, future studies might take a longitudinal approach, similar to an article written by Liu, Venkatesh, Murphy, and Riggio (2021) which explored the changing experiences of leaders as their skills develop over their lifetime. This could be a useful way to evaluate the effectiveness of leadership development programs implemented for mid-level leaders at colleges by effectively tracking the progress and experiences of training participants (Kwok et al., 2021). Furthermore, a study that follows emerging leaders through their development process could help to capture the degree to which leaders felt engaged during formal trainings, and possibly the development of their identities as leaders. A long-term study that follows mid-level leaders over the course of their career could attempt to capture these day-to-day factors and self-development experiences which affect leaders’ growth over time (Kwok et al., 2021).


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Phillippe, 2016). AACC CEO survey compensation. American Association of Community Colleges.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2024, April). Community college month: April 2024. U.S. Department of Commerce.

Katherine González is Lead Scholarship Officer at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.