Ten Questions: David Hespe
Burlington County College’s new president is studying a changing student body
By Terri Akman

He’s been on the job less than two months, but the new president of Burlington County College, David Hespe, is quite comfortable in his new role. With an extensive background in education – he’s been New Jersey’s commissioner of education, chair and associate professor of the educational leadership department at Rowan University, and interim superintendent of schools for the Willingboro School District – Hespe says he’s learning how the economic climate has changed today’s community college student.


Are more students enrolling in community college than in previous years?

Our head count shows a 16-percent increase. In credit hours, we are up 19.2 percent over a three-year period. A lot of that has to do with choices being made in the midst of the economic depression. We will probably see the numbers stabilize in future years.


What are today’s college students most concerned about?

They are concerned continually with three things: the accessibility of our programs to them, the affordability of our programs to them and achievement – will they achieve their goals through our programs and services. Our students definitely want a program and a degree that will lead to employment, a career or further college. Our job is to deliver on that.


Is that different today than it was five years ago or even a generation ago?

Families are more challenged in making certain their children can attend college than ever before. In some ways, college education today is more unaffordable for large groups of students. There was just an article that looked at the rate at which colleges were feeding the inflation rate year after year and how that was building up in tuition. One of the things we are proud of at Burlington County College is that our tuition remains amongst the lowest in the state. We froze the tuition last year, as well.


What does it cost to attend BCC?

Our tuition and fees are $3,615 for the current year. In 2011-12, 24 percent of our students received financial aid.


Do you find students today are especially concerned about getting a job after graduation?

That’s a great question, because it does have relevancy to every educational institution in the state, whether you’re a high school, community college, four-year institution, law school or medical school. The issue we all need to reflect on is: are we producing students that are leaving our institutions and getting jobs and careers. Oftentimes, educational institutions focus on things like enrollment or campuses, but currently the debate is turning. Are we helping students accomplish their goals when they decide to enroll here? It’s really a return on investment. Students are very sophisticated in why they choose certain educational institutions. They base that decision on how that decision will help them find that career or that job.


Has this concern made you change programs at BCC?

We will be spending a lot of time collecting information on where our students go after they leave our programs and classrooms, so we know if they are moving on to a four-year institution, graduating from that four-year institution and moving onto careers directly aligned with their program. Those are all data points we need to focus on more. That data will be very valuable to us in aligning our programs with the workforce needs, and making sure our students have the skills and knowledge to be competitive when they graduate.


Do you find students today are prepared for the rigors of college?

I served on New Jersey’s College and Career Readiness Task Force, and they issued a report discussing if students graduating high school are ready for college or careers. The answer to that was – in many, many circumstances – they are not. One dilemma we face in BCC that’s shared by every community college in the state — if not every college in the state, 2 year or 4 year – is students are graduating high school without adequate preparation for advanced coursework. The numbers are startling. Sixty percent of the students coming into BCC require some developmental coursework, and that’s typical. That number goes into the high 80s at some community colleges in the state. The answer to that is to form closer partnerships with the high schools and middle schools to look at why so many students are graduating without the ability to go directly into a degree or career program.


Where do students go after leaving BCC?

They begin with different career goals in mind: some students are on a degree pathway, some are on a certificate pathway, and some receive technical education programs. Twenty five percent of students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree at colleges and universities — some very, very good institutions, including University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, Rutgers University, New York University and TCNJ. The rest go on for employment.


What are you most excited about in taking over the helm of BCC?

This job will give me the ability to start working directly with students again. We should wake up every morning and ask ourselves how we can make our students’ lives better and their families’ lives better. That’s what I’m hoping all the staff here will do. Having spent my life in education, a lot of the momentum and excitement is moving to the community colleges. They are affordable options, options that directly connect students with jobs and careers. We are in the community, and we understand the needs of the community.


Do you have children in college?

I have a son who is a high school senior and is right now looking for college admissions. My current role as dad is trying to steer him to the right college. Every student is going to be different in terms of what they’re looking for academically, extra-curricular wise and their career goals. For example, my son is a quite gifted pole-vaulter, so one of the things he wants to continue with in college is track and field. That’s an important piece of the puzzle. You have to factor that into the academic and career program he wants to go into and where’s the best place for him socially. Every student is different. The most important thing a parent can do is spend time with their child and make sure they understand all of those goals. It’s not always trying to get into the best college or university or the closest one. It’s trying to balance all of the reasons the student wants to go. It’s difficult, and I give every parent who has ever done it a lot of credit.



What perspective does your varied background in education bring to your new job?

I have learned that regardless of where you are in the educational continuum, you are preparing your students for the next phase of their life. My experiences gave me a very good perspective of how well students were preparing for community colleges, careers and four year institutions, what we can expect of them and how we can better work with them in terms of developmental education programs. Similarly, my experience at Rowan provided me with a great perspective in terms of what a four-year institution expects of our students when they leave our classrooms and head off to a four-year institution or career program.


The Burlington County Freeholders supported your appointment. Why is that important?

Countywide, all educational institutions, social services and county government have a common purpose to serve our families and communities. I believe we need to have a very strong partnership with the county, freeholders, local school districts and social services agencies, because those are the groups that are going to serve our students. A large number of our students will start here and not be able to continue because of financial, child-care, health or social service issues, so strong partnerships with those groups are going to help our students. The support of the Freeholders is essential to those partnerships being productive.


Are there any plans to have direct admissions for students into any four-year schools if they are successful at BCC?

By law, public colleges in New Jersey have to accept our credits. Direct connections are very important. I’m looking forward to having conversations with our partner four-year institutions and the public colleges in New Jersey on whether there are dual-role possibilities or direct admission possibilities.


What is your core mission for BCC?

To serve the community and families by providing affordable and accessible programs of study that lead to jobs and careers.

November 2012
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