GatorCast Ep. 17: National Importance - Federal Government in Community Colleges (Part 1)
By College Relations and the Office of the President, September 9, 2020
President Johnson: Welcome to GatorCast, the official podcast of Green River College, where we share conversations with the community about topics that are relevant to you. I'm Suzanne Johnson, President of the College. My guest today is Dr. Casey Sacks, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges in the US Department of Education. We're going to discuss the role of the federal government in higher education and community colleges specifically. And if this was ever an important topic these days, it is now. Had an opportunity to record this podcast with Dr. Sachs months before COVID-19 hit. And our conversations, I think will be very illuminating in terms of the role the community colleges play, the important role that the federal government plays in the context of the Department of Education related to community colleges. I hope you enjoy this conversation. Well, I'm really excited today everybody out there listening, we have a special guest in our sound booth, actually, remote from Washington DC, but I'm in our sound booth here at Green River College. And we are going to be talking with Casey Sacks, who is currently serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges in the Department of Education in Washington, DC. Her position and office resides within the Division of Career and Technical Education at the Department of Education. and Casey and I have known each other for a number of years, and I've known her through several different career roles within community colleges. And she's gonna be a wonderful guest for us to talk about a myriad of things because not only is she currently in the Department of Education in DC, but she has worked in several different community college systems across the country. And one of our goals this season in season two of GatorCast, and if I have my reliable listeners you know this, we're aiming to bring guests periodically through season two from community colleges across the country, or have a role within our community college system across the country to discuss topics that are relevant, not just to Green River College but to community colleges at large. And I couldn't think of a better guest to add to these conversations, but for Casey to join us. So welcome, Casey.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Thank you, it's great to be with you. Hello Gators.
President Johnson: Yes, we are the Gators. You know, when I came here, I did ask the obvious question, given the fact that this college resides in the Pacific Northwest and a fairly mountainous area right outside of Seattle, how the alligator became the mascot-
Dr. Casey Sacks: It is a fair question.
President Johnson: Yeah, I thought it was a fair question. And now I will tell you I've received many different answers. All of them rather suspect, but suffice it to say the alligator or Gators are our is our mascot. And our specific mascot is Slater the Gator. So there you have it. So welcome to GatorCast. This is our official podcast of Green River College. And we'd like to start, or I like to start all of our interviews with guests with some pretty standard questions. I know we have a lot of listeners within our service area, within our communities. We have listeners across the country that are not familiar with Green River or our region outside of Seattle. And I know we also have a lot of student listeners and they're always interested in how people end up in particular jobs. I can't tell you how many times students have asked me you're the president, Oh, well, number one is, what the presidents do. And number two is how do you become a president at a college? And of course we don't have time to even broach either one of those questions for this podcast. That's another day entirely, but I love to start with some questions about you. And I think it adds some color and perspective, especially for our students who are considering, what's their future looking like in terms of how people's lives turn and move across time. So Casey Sacks, who are you, where are you from? Share a little bit about your life story. And from there, we'll talk about your career journey.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Okay, well, thank you Suzanne, for that kind introduction. And for having me today, I grew up in a place called Evergreen, Colorado. It's in the mountains outside of Denver and went to school all the way through a master's degree in Colorado. And I thought I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. So I do hold a master's degree in clinical psychology and I practiced as a geriatric clinician for a little while and I hated it. It was just not good for my soul. When I started doing therapy with my clients, pretty often the narrative was I'm an 80 year old person who's been depressed my whole life. And I recognize that that's just what my life has been, but now I'm getting to the end of my life and I'm going to die soon. And I have to figure out how to reconcile the fact that I've lived a life that I'm not happy with. With the fact that I'm dying. And so I would see seven or eight people a day, and that was pretty much what we talked about. And gosh, I respect the people who can do that as a living like crazy, but I was not one of them. And so I learned pretty early that I needed a new job and I had been a Hall Director in grad school. And so I thought you use a lot of those same clinical skills with college students, but there's more hope you have-
President Johnson: Are Hall Directors like a resident assistant, like you worked in a dormitory at the college?
Dr. Casey Sacks: I worked in dormitory and supervised residents.
President Johnson: Okay, okay.
Dr. Casey Sacks: The graduate student version of being a resident assistant. But with college students, there's a lot more hope. So you're a 25 year old person and you're depressed. We have 60 more years we can work a lot on in your life. And so I interviewed through the student affairs professional association called NASPA. I did a nationwide search and a lot of colleagues in student affairs can relate to this. At NASPA you go and you sit in a giant room where thousands of other people are also interviewing at little tables all right in a row. And you can interview with dozens of colleges all in the same day place, but the colleges are all over the country. And so I think I did 30 interviews at NASPA the week that I was there and ended up getting hired by Drexel University in Philadelphia. And so I had never even visited Philadelphia before my on campus interview, but decided it was a great time in my life to make a change and try something new. And so I packed up my cat and moved to Philadelphia and it was great. I had an amazing experience. I loved Philadelphia. I love to Drexel. It's a very career and technical education focused kind of institution.
President Johnson: At the university, yeah?
Dr. Casey Sacks: It is a university, a four year institution, very focused on engineering, very focused on work-based learning, one of the few universities in the country that does a formalized co-op experience with students. So all of my students were out in a workplace about half of the year doing real jobs, and I loved it there. It was a great place. But what I started to see was that people who had roles that I would aspire to, they all had PhDs. They all had degrees in Higher Education Administration or in college student personnel. And I recognized pretty early on that if I wanted to progress in my career, that I was also going to need to pursue a PhD. So I did a national search for PhD programs and had the happy problem of getting into all of the places that I wanted to get into. And so then-
President Johnson: Oh there's a story for the students to hope for, right?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Right, well, they did. but in so many ways that means that I applied to the right places, that I made good choices about fit. And it means that I made good choices about kind of what I wanted to study and who I wanted to study with when you're going into a doctoral program, really paying who the faculty members are matters as much as the program, because you really wanna have advisors who are gonna be great mentors for you and who are going to be a good professional fit for your own interests.
President Johnson: Right, right.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Oh, I had done my homework. It's not as though I just randomly applied to institutions. But I ended up picking the place that gave me the best package. I picked the place that said, "We'll pay for you "to go to school here." So I then moved to Bowling Green Ohio and did a doctorate at Bowling Green State University, really focused on Institutional Planning and Finance. And then I switched gears a little bit for my dissertation and looked at student academic honesty and disciplinary systems. So my interest was really around if students are found cheating, then what happens? What do we do as an institution? And the interesting findings for me in that study were really that we treat white students differently than we treat students of color. And so that may be as its own podcast, but it was a really engaging study. And I got to look at some institutional data sets around how colleges manage academic honesty.
President Johnson: Wow, okay.
Dr. Casey Sacks: So that was great, and then I was thinking I was going into student affairs, so all along and certainly something I would always tell students is to have a plan. Your plan's allowed to change, but it really helps somebody mentor you, it really helps somebody work with you and guide you and give you extra structure and support if you are able to say, "Gosh, my next plan is." And so in following and keeping with that advice, my plan was to go into student affairs. So I had, again looked nationally at what universities. I was really very focused on four year institutions would be a good fit for me. And I was offered a job in North Carolina and offered a job in Texas and was getting all ready to figure out which place I wanted to go And my mom got sick. Life happens, you know. So my mom got sick and I really thought it was important to be in Colorado so that I could do things like go to doctor's appointments and be with my family. So I moved back to Colorado and I didn't have a job which was really scary in 2008 because we were in depression.
President Johnson: Oh yes. There was a little event that happened around that date, wasn't there? Major recession.
Dr. Casey Sacks: The worst time in recent history to not have a job and no one was hiring. And certainly not in Colorado for people right out of doctoral programs. While more and more people started enrolling in community colleges, community colleges weren't really on my radar yet. And even though the enrollment was up still colleges weren't hiring because we weren't really ready yet to be responsive to the enrollment changes. So I moved back to Colorado, and I'm a kind of person who really likes to be busy and I was bored. If you've ever had a sick person, they might need to go to the doctor two times a week, three times a week, but then what else do you do? Is sort of how I felt about it.
President Johnson: Okay.
Dr. Casey Sacks: I sent my local community college president my resume and said, "I'll do whatever you need me to for free "just give me meaningful work."
President Johnson: Wow, I've known you for a number of years, but I am learning things today that I have not known about you. And for our student listeners, I hope you're paying attention to the twists and turns that Casey is sharing in the context of life and what happens and plans and what happens. And I think so often times when you're at the front end of life journey, you believe that people that you hear or see in particular positions that you deem as successful, that it's been very clear, very planned out, very protracted, linear, sequential, no disruptions, no twister.
Dr. Casey Sacks: None of those things.
President Johnson: All right, so you send your letter to the president at the community college and say, "I will do anything "you need done for free. "Just give me meaningful work."
Dr. Casey Sacks: Give me something meaningful, and she was like, "Great, can you start yesterday?" And I really respect Michelle for that. She's a wonderful dear mentor and friend.
President Johnson: Can you share what college this was?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colorado
President Johnson: Okay
Dr. Casey Sacks: Actually, had been a student at Red Rocks. My senior year in high school I took concurrent enrollment classes there.
President Johnson: We have a lot of dual credit students here running start students doing just exactly what you described.
Dr. Casey Sacks: So exactly like your running start students, I had taken some courses in high school. I was finished with high school curriculum and ready to do something more challenging. And so I had taken some courses at Red Rocks before I went on to Colorado State University where I completed my bachelor's degree. And so I knew Red Rocks from my own student experience, but I really didn't know community colleges from an administrator's experience. And so Michelle was very kind and gave me a crash course on things like my language was wrong. When one of the things they had me do right away was rewrite their student code of conduct because I mentioned I did all that work in disciplinary systems. So I was working on their student code of conduct, and my first draft, I kept referring to the university's obligations and responsibilities. The team was like, "Right, so this is a college "and it's different and let's talk about how." And I really appreciate the folks from Red Rocks who helped sort of indoctrinate me into the community college way of thinking and doing things. Because it is a little bit different from a four year institution. All my classes were smaller when I was a student at a community college. My teachers actually knew my name. They really paid attention to what I was doing and to my success. And that was a really different undergrad experience than what I had at a big state institution. So Michelle introduced me to folks all over the state because she recognized here's a woman who's really willing to work hard and do all of these things, but she should be getting paid. So she-
President Johnson: Right, what can we do to help this person make some money doing this work for us, right?
Dr. Casey Sacks: What can we do to get her employed. And so probably took two months. And the provost for the state system called and said, "I have a job, it's not doing any of the things "that you seem to have told Michelle that you wanna do, "but I will pay you." And I was like, "Great, let's talk." So in Colorado career in technical education is for the whole state K-12 and for community colleges, is managed by the State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education. So that's the community college system.
President Johnson: Okay, and for those who are Washington listeners, the similarity would be SPCTC, our State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, which is overarching organizational system that we have for the 34 Career and Technical Community and technical colleges that we have in the state.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yes, that same group, but Colorado's version. And so one of the things that they had happening was that there was a state funding stream that was the state match for the career and technical education dollars that come from the federal government. So the federal government project is called the Federal Perkins Grant. And the Perkins Grant are dollars that go to both local school districts and community colleges to help support and offset some of the costs of running career and technical education programs. So you think about a Water Quality Management Program or a Mechatronics Program. There's really high tech equipment often that you need in programs like that and it makes them-
President Johnson: And we have both of those here, yeah.
Dr. Casey Sacks: So exactly those kinds of programs that you're seeing, they're a little more expensive to run than an English class, where there are no specialized kind equipment or that sort of machinery that you might need in your classroom. So the idea with Perkins is that it can help schools more effectively start those programs and recruit people from industry to work in those programs. And States have a state match that goes into this, and States run it all kinds of different ways, but in Colorado, the state match went to K-12 schools exclusively through a state formula that was pretty complicated and folks didn't really understand it. And before I started, there were a series of audits for school districts that had been participating in that formula funding. And many of them had audit findings really through no real fault of their own. Well, certainly through no malicious fault of their own, but lots of things like errors in their paperwork caused these audit findings. And so my job became to come in and talk to 140 superintendents who were pretty angry about a series of audit findings that had to do with their career technical education funding.
President Johnson: So this is where I think your clinical psychology background would come in handy.
Dr. Casey Sacks: It certainly did. "Hey, you have an audit finding of half a million dollars. "Let's talk about that."
President Johnson: Yeah, I have to tell you we share that similar background, the PhD in psychology and people have said, "Hmm, well, how does all of your education and training "play out being a president?" And I said, "Well, whatever training I received "that related to clinical work has played out far more "in my job day-to-day now than it ever was in the past."
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah, well, and thanks, I mean, I'm grateful for that particular skillset for a variety of reasons.
President Johnson: So there you are facing some disgruntled superintendents who are not all happy about what's happening with their money.
Dr. Casey Sacks: No and right, I mean, and rightly so, it's not like they were being unreasonable, but it really meant that I needed to explain how the audits worked and how the funding stream worked and right away this goes to the value of being able to read something and then learn from whatever it is, because there was no one who could teach me about things like OMB cost circulars.
President Johnson: And what is that?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Right, it's fascinating. So the federal government has series of rules-
President Johnson: And what does that stand for, OMB?
Dr. Casey Sacks: OMB is the Office for Management and Budget. And they're a federal agency that sets the rules for how federal dollars are allowed to be spent.
President Johnson: You see now whenever there's an acronym that's expressed in any of these interviews, I always have it defined because sometimes I know what they are, but because that's either within our wheelhouse of the roles we play at schools or institutions or in Higher Ed, I always like to translate those. So for those of you who did not know an OMB, there we go. It's all about how federal monies are spent. So that's the takeaway right there.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Gosh, I hope that's not the takeaway how boring.
President Johnson: No in terms of there is an important reason that you would wanna know what an OMB is. It's not just about a report, it's actually, Oh, it's the guidelines. It's the rules about how money is spent from the federal government. But are you suggesting that you spent a great deal of your time early on in your career in the Colorado system reading these documents?
Dr. Casey Sacks: An extraordinary amount of time? Yes, because I needed to. It was really important to help explain particularly to superintendents, but to CFOs in different districts, how those cost principles worked, what you were allowed to buy, what's federally allowed versus what's allowed by the state. And something that I think is really important is that to be effective in a role like that, it means you really need to understand whatever the rules are that you're being asked to implement so that when people ask questions, you really can answer the question. Too often I've seen people just kind of get defensive or act like, "Well, it's my job "that's what I have to do." And that's a terrible reason. The reason is because you're trying to protect taxpayer money and trying to be responsible with taxpayer money. And that's really important. It's just that it has to be communicated in a way that doesn't just come off like a bureaucrat telling you you're just not allowed to do something.
President Johnson: Well, and that's true. I mean, that's true for most every aspect of life I would suppose, right? It's much better to understand the reasons why as compared to that's just the rule.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Right, right. Just having it be the rule is in a very constructive conversation.
President Johnson: Right, no matter what the topic or domain
Dr. Casey Sacks: Right, true.
President Johnson: So what position did you ultimately hold with the Colorado system then?
Dr. Casey Sacks: My last position, there was as an assistant provost. I think my whole title was something like assistant provost for innovation or something to that effect. But I was running workforce development projects and working with the Department of Labor in trying to figure out what kind of innovation did we need so that more students could get into jobs that would be high paying careers. We did a lot of statewide work around things like developmental education and how do we better redesign developmental education so that it's a more effective process for students and really keeping up with what are the national trends and what makes sense in this education space. So a lot around credit prior learning. I mean, all things that you've been doing in Washington as well. They were the Colorado version of those projects.
President Johnson: Right, exactly. And we have listeners from across the country and in and outside of the college and service area and so on and in various walks of life. And they will know these categories that you speak of in terms of what makes sense in the context of career and technical pathways and credit for prior learning and so on. And we do receive Perkins money obviously as well as our K-12 system does too. How big is the Colorado system in terms of how many colleges that are part of that system?
Dr. Casey Sacks: There are 13 Colleges in the system. And then there's a couple of independent colleges in the state that often participate with the system, but that they're independent.
President Johnson: Right.
Dr. Casey Sacks: It's sort of a more complicated governance question and where a local tax bases. So in places like Aspen, the college that serves Aspen Colorado, doesn't wanna give that local property tax base up to join a system among number of other reasons. But that seems notable.
President Johnson: Sure, well, 'cause I know you're going from the Colorado system to another system which I wanna have unfold in the journey of the storytelling, but before we leave Colorado, what do you think would be the top learning takeaways that you left Colorado with before your next stop in your career?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Oh gosh, what a good question. I would say one really important thing that I left Colorado with was to recognize the importance of mentorship, both from my ability to be a mentor to young people and also the importance of selecting professional roles that would set me up with somebody who I really respect and can learn from. And in fact, when I did transition to the next state where I moved after Colorado, it was with a 100% intention that the woman who was the chancellor of the state system was someone who I knew from other professional experiences and who I respect like crazy and recognized that I would have a really good, strong partnership with her. And I think I had some great mentors and some lousy mentors. And I think you can learn a lot from a bad example too.
President Johnson: Sure, absolutely.
Dr. Casey Sacks: And it really solidified for me the importance of picking roles based on the people around me, because I think it makes a huge difference about what you're able to accomplish.
President Johnson: What other takeaways did you leave Colorado with?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Oh gosh, I mean, so many things. One of the non-work things that I do in my life is that I sponsor exchange students in my home. And I think I left Colorado with some very rich international connections. I had hosted three students at that point and they're still people who I communicate with regularly. Just this morning, the news sent me a news bulletin that the government in Russia has resigned, and I immediately called in from Russia and said, "I want you to explain what's going on in Russia, "from your perspective." It has given me an incredibly rich network of people all over the world who I will carry with me forever. And I would say that's not really an immediate work-related thing, although sometimes there are intersections that particular student from Russia, we jointly wrote a program to our United States State Department that funded us to put on a small conference in Moscow a couple of years ago, where we talked to businesses and universities in the Moscow area that about how to better align their curriculum and how to help students get the skills that they needed to get jobs in the workplace, which are things that our community colleges do exceptionally well. And so it was able to sort of intersect two different parts of my life, the love for international education and the love for career and technical education.
President Johnson: Well, I think that probably resonates with a lot of our listeners because some facts that you may or may not be familiar with, you know, Green River College is the in the number one position in Washington state, among community colleges with the largest international enrollment. And we're actually ninth in the nation as a community college with international enrollment and many of our international students we have housing here, we have apartments which some of them choose to stay in, but a number of our international students have home family hosts and they live within a particular family in the community, and very much like what you're describing in terms of exchange students. And so they live with these host families within our service area for the time that they're here. And we absolutely have a focus, Green River is situated right outside of Seattle. And we have port of Seattle, we have port of Tacoma. We are a fairly international region and there's a lot of international dimension to most business and industry in this area. So the importance of internationalization and global awareness, global knowledge and learning is an element of our culture. And interestingly enough, at the end of the fall term of this 19/20 academic year, every month I do what's called Pizza with the President and it's just a two hour open session for students to come past, and yes I have the pizza. But the students come with questions, concerns, information. It's my opportunity to be able to speak to them directly without others around and just getting honest feedback. And so usually it's just a very open two hours. People can talk about whatever they'd like very casual we do it near our area of the Student Union by the Daily Grind, which is our coffee shop by fireplace. But right before the end of the fall term, I asked all the students the same question. And the question was, what are you most grateful for at Green River College? And one of the most common answers I received along with their gratitude for their wonderful teachers our faculty here and the activities here and so on, they said, they're most grateful for the college in terms of how diverse the student body is, and that they've made friends from all over the world.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah, it's such a gift.
President Johnson: Yeah, and recognizing how much that adds to their educational experience here at the college, and we are a very diverse service area as well in the cities that we serve. So it's not just we're diverse 'cause we have international students. No, we're diverse because we serve several cities in South King County in our service area that represent dozens and dozens of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, languages and so on. So that aspect of enrichment in one's life can't be underestimated for sure.
Dr. Casey Sacks: No, I completely agree. I feel like it's just one of those things that I happened into, and I'm so grateful that I did think the two other sort of life things that I got from Colorado that have continued to carry forward with me wherever I've moved. The first is my involvement with Rotary International that I joined Rotary when I moved back to Colorado largely so that I would know people at the grocery store. but I wanted to know people in my community. And so saw Rotary as an opportunity to do that. And for folks who don't know, Rotary is an international service organization. So the group splits their energy between local service and international service.
President Johnson: And we have Rotaries in our service area and I'm actually a member of our local Rotary.
Dr. Casey Sacks: And so you know as well as I do, you can get really interesting Rotary projects. And I've been very involved with something that's called the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. In fact, now that I'm in DC, I've been helping the DC and Maryland clubs develop their curriculum so that they can put on a Rotary Youth Leadership Awards camp here for students in the DC and Maryland area. But I got all of the content from the things that we had done in the Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming District Youth Leadership Camp. But the idea is how do you really engage people who are juniors and seniors in high school, in intentional leadership development and help them kind of think about service in some intentional ways. What are the programs that you need in your community? How do you develop those? How do you fund those? What do they look like? And so that has been a really fun thing that I do just in my life that I appreciate that I took from Colorado and have maintained. And I would actually say the other is just around horses. That I've always ridden, I've always been an equestrian anything 'cause some of that is just the geography I was in, but horses are in many ways my happy place. And I found... Actually I was reading the Wall Street Journal several years ago, and there was an article in it about Polo, riding a horse and hitting a ball.
President Johnson: Yes
Dr. Casey Sacks: I had never seen polo before. I certainly, I did not grow up in a polo family. My parents hate horses. There was no way this was gonna be something they wanted to do, but I love them and read the article in the journal and thought, "Gosh, I wonder if there's anywhere "in Colorado where you can play this game. "It sounds like fun." And there is, I joined the Denver Polo Club and had an amazing events there. Played with a group of women who are just absolutely fantastic and have had the opportunity now to travel. I've played polo in other countries. I've joined clubs everywhere I've moved since and had that as a community. And I think for me, it's just incredible because it's Cowboys on horseback playing a game, and it's a really nice way to be with other horse people, which I appreciate very much. And don't think I would've had those opportunities had I not been back in Colorado after I finished that graduate program. It wouldn't have been something that may have shown up on my radar.
President Johnson: Huh, well, I know that we have some staff and faculty here at Green River College who are avid horseback riders and horse lovers so if they're listening, I'm sure that they were just smiling about you're talking about horses in your life. So you obviously not a part of the Colorado system anymore. So what prompted you to leave Colorado and where did you go from there?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah, so a few years ago I was ready for a promotion and I was sort of at this awkward place where you may find yourself in a career, for your listeners, that if you really, if the promotion is what's important to you, you're gonna have to go somewhere else to find it. And with the full support of my leadership was sort of in that space where it meant someone needed to retire for me to be able to move up and no one was ready to retire. I was looking at a 15 year stretch before that was likely to happen. And so I started looking nationally again for places that would be a good fit for me, and where I would have the kinds of opportunities that I wanted and be able to do the kinds of work that I wanted to do in community colleges. So I was being very, very selective at this job in West Virginia showed up and the Chancellor in West Virginia is just this incredible woman, Sarah Tucker, who has a great vision for the state, has an incredible heart for community colleges has an incredible heart for students. She's very data-oriented and very savvy about student outcomes and the kinds of changes we might wanna make to improve student outcomes. And I had met her through Complete College America. There's a group called Complete College America that's not surprisingly focused on helping people complete college.
President Johnson: As the title might suggest right.
Dr. Casey Sacks: As the title very appropriately suggests. And she and I had both done some work around math redesign and math reform at the same time and had been on a couple panels together. And so I had been exposed to her and knew that I respected her and liked her and that she would be someone who I'd be real interested in working with. So I applied for the Vice Chancellor position in West Virginia. So that meant doing the support for nine community colleges spend a lot of time with nine college presidents and their respective boards doing board training, that sort of thing. And so we had nine college boards and also a state board. So 10 total board and nine college presidents for that particular state system. And I just loved working with Sarah, and really the whole state. Each of those college presidents is phenomenal. They're all doing the very same work that you know, but they're doing it in a state that's really challenging. There are right around 2 million people in the whole state of West Virginia, and so it means that scale can sometimes be a real challenge, if you're looking at colleges with enrollment of two or 3000 people, what you can do there is different than what you can do at a college with 20,000 people just by virtue of the size. And then challenge around business and industry that because there's fewer people, there's fewer big businesses. And so when you think about creating partnerships so that you can get students into that work pipeline, that you wanna do education and training experiences that are really intentional for the jobs that exist in the area, when there are fewer jobs in an area that makes your job as a college president even more challenging. And it was great for me to be there because largely my experience in Colorado had been urban or suburban while there are rural colleges for sure, And there are some exceptional rural colleges in Colorado. A lot of my energy from that state office was focused on where most of our enrollment was. And so making that shift to West Virginia and then that I spent a lot more time thinking about issues in rural America and issues that particularly small college presidents are faced with. How do you create economic development in a region where you don't have a big employer becomes a really important central question for how colleges operate. And it was fun, I was having a great time, really enjoyed the work there and enjoyed the folks there. But then the Assistant Secretary for the office that I'm working in now, the Department for the Office of Career Technical and Adult Education called me and said, "Hey, Casey, are you interested in coming to Washington? "I need some help with community colleges "and I'd like to talk to you about it." And so it just said like, how do you say no to that? The scope of the number of people who I can help and support changes tremendously. And so I said, "Yes, let's talk about it." And immediately called my Chancellor said, "Hey, I just got this phone call "What do you think?" And she said, "Oh, that's amazing. "that's great for our country, "and it's incredible for you. "And I'm so sad for us." And that just her reaction even makes me even more appreciate who she is and the kind of supervisor and mentor she is. Because that's exactly the reaction that you want from somebody in your life is I'm gonna miss you like crazy, but yet you have to do this. You have to take this opportunity. So I came to DC and I talked to the team here at the Department of Education and they pretty much said, "We've just reauthorized "the Federal Perkins Act." That same act that I mentioned earlier, that I started in Colorado working on and we wanna implement it in all 50 States. And so we want some help figuring out how to do that implementation. And while we're at it, your portfolio will also include adult education and prison education and community colleges. And really engaging community colleges, both in workforce development and the broader post-secondary mission of the department. And so those things all just really appeal to me and are things that I feel very strongly about. And so the work here that I've been able to do with the department in the last 13 months has been just incredible.
President Johnson: So you've been there for a little over a year and boy, just so many questions that I wanna ask you about that experience, but you mentioned something earlier talking about West Virginia. I need to be careful which state I refer to and recognizing in West Virginia, of course, there's the wide range of economic experiences there in terms of poverty and affluence. I'm sure the same for Colorado. It's not often that a person has worked in different regions of the country and for different systems of community colleges. So I'm kind of curious about from your vantage point, what the common themes are, whether they're common missions, common challenges, common activities that you see across States that relate to community colleges. I know a lot of our listeners are saying, "Well, you know we're in Washington state. "So what might Colorado or West Virginia have to do with us?" Although in our Washington state, we have rurally located community colleges, and they have more challenging times in the context of declining population, in the areas that they're located in and as a result fewer students. But also what you were talking about in terms of economic viability of that town or city based on what's happening within the economies of those more rural areas. So what themes have you derived from working across these community college systems before you got to the federal level? What are the common themes, challenges, objectives that you find community colleges to have?
Dr. Casey Sacks: They have a lot more in common than they have anything different. It doesn't matter what the region is. Community colleges are about economic growth, they're economic drivers in their communities, largely about business partnerships and filling an employee pipeline, helping people get the training they need to upskill or to re-skill. Certainly plots of incumbent worker training that I can name dozens and dozens of examples all over the country of colleges that are doing a great job partnering with whatever their local businesses are and saying, "Okay, instead of laying off these 12 people, "how do we upskill them so that they can do "the next set of things that you need in your company?" And certainly transfer community colleges, fill a big transformation. And in many places, it's no more than half of the students who are at the institution who are figuring out how do I take general education credits at a more affordable tuition rate and then transfer to whatever the major state institution is with the intention of completing a bachelor's degree there. So there's these multiple roles and mission that community colleges all over the country fill, and they really are focused on how do we provide access to all of our student. As open enrollment institutions, they by definition enroll everyone. But how do you do that in a way that then sets them up for success? And then what is success? And so that's an even bigger challenge because in so many communities successes, a job or it's transfer, or it's... I mean, there are different definitions of success depending on your student. And so sometimes you get someone who really just wants one class, and sometimes you get someone who wants two years-worth of classes. And so it's figuring out how do you structure an institution to best serve all of your learners with whatever their needs are right now?
President Johnson: You know, all of those things that you've identified are elements certainly for Green River College, we're engaged in all of this. And we see equal numbers of students who come to us who wanna transfer on to a four year college or university, public or private. And we have an equal number of students that are coming to us who already pretty much have figured out what they'd like to do. And they're coming because we have a particular program in a career or technical area that is linked to employment opportunities. I think one of the most interesting things, and one of the other guests we have this season is Matt Reed, who I believe you know. He's our VP for learning at Brookdale community college in New Jersey.
Dr. Casey Sacks: It's my favorite daily as Dean dad.
President Johnson: Yes, he's Dean dad, well now of course he's revealed himself, right? It's no longer Dean dad, right. He writes the blog confessions of community college Dean for Inside Higher Ed. And we were talking about some of these similar missions of community colleges. And even though we're on the East coast versus the West coast, so to speak, what our colleges are trying to do for our communities. And one of the challenges as you're pointing out, right? Open access, open enrollment, and we want everybody to have equal opportunity, equal access to education, whether that be for a career technical destination for employment and or transfer on in terms of that next step. And how do we effectively as institutions for all that diverse population that comes to us, how do we create our work internally at the institution to bring each student to that point of success? So there's equality of opportunity in terms of the access. And then what we want is equal outcome for all of those who have come to us, but how do we get each of those students from the beginning point to the end point might differ in terms of the kinds of supports they might need to get them to that same end. And that is all about equity, right? Some students need lots of supports to get to that end, other students not so much. And on the one hand, it's quite a challenge for our institutions. On the other hand is one of the beauties and reasons, I think so many of us choose to go to community colleges. I'm hearing a lot of themes and a lot of our guests in season two, where so many of us, you included, myself included where we started in higher ed in a very different location, very different place, not community colleges. And we all found ourselves being compelled to for a variety of reasons into the community college world. I think a lot of that has to do with our philosophies of life, our values, our desire to not have a life of regret that you described earlier, which we're gonna circle back to towards the end of our conversations to have meaningfulness and impact.
President Johnson: Hi listeners, this concludes part one of my conversation with Dr. Casey Sacks. The following episode would feature part two, where we further explore community colleges, their impact and importance in our nation and the role of the federal government in supporting community colleges. That's next time on GatorCast. Have a great day.