Since Bill Pink became the tenth president of Grand Rapids Community College two years ago, he has become a leading voice for the state’s network of 28 community colleges. Pink sat down with MiBiz after speaking from the main stage of the Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual gathering of Michigan’s top business and political leaders, to discuss the effect of business executives, education leaders and philanthropy partners coming together to advocate for a better education system.
What does it mean to you that so much time at the Mackinac Policy Conference, which is normally focused on business issues, was spent discussing education?
In Grand Rapids, we partner with our business leaders so well and so much that this is a common conversation we have quite a bit. I know one thing Doug Rothwell of BLM (Business Leaders of Michigan) pointed out was how interesting it was to have businesses and all those people on the stage (focused on education), but we have that quite a bit and I’m blessed to be a part of it.
Are West Michigan and Grand Rapids unique in that this collaboration between education and business has already been happening?
I’ve been in Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and now Michigan. What I see in West Michigan is that competitors, who on a natural and firm basis would be going against each other, are able to sit at the table and put that stuff aside. Manufacturers sit at the table, community colleges sitting at the table, all of us being able to talk about how we address this issue.
You haven’t had that experience in other places?
I haven’t seen that anywhere else. In West Michigan, what happens is that people in Grand Rapids and Ottawa County get used to it. When you’re a visitor who hasn’t lived here or who didn’t grow up here or when you see that from the outside, you’re going, ‘OK, wait a minute, you guys are going to meet? Aren’t you guys in the same space?’ I haven’t seen that very much at all in other places, and it happens here on a regular basis.
On a statewide level, what issues are you watching?
I’ve recently been appointed to the MEDC executive committee. I care strongly about that appointment not just from the GRCC perspective but from a community college president standpoint. For us as a community college to have an ear and voice at the state economic development table I think is very important and significant, because we do so much in enhancing the economic footprint around us and the development around where we all exist. Studies that we have had done show us that community colleges have right about half a billion dollar economic footprint in Kent County and Ottawa County combined.
In her keynote address, Gov. Whitmer called out community colleges as an important economic development partner.
Every time I talk to the governor about it, I see that she has that same vision in mind to help get our state to a place where we can attain her goal of 60 percent (of the adult population in the state earning a college degree). I know myself and my colleagues around the state are very anxious to see how we can help and assist that. We’re very tuned in to the conversation around her (proposed) Michigan Reconnect Grant, as well as her Michigan Opportunity Grant that would provide last dollar free community college.
As far as cost, community college has long been one of the most accessible options for people who want to pursue a college education. Are you still dealing with a lot of people with barriers to accessing GRCC or community college in general?
Typically, the barriers that we see have very little to do with our price and much more to do with all of the wrap-around services like transportation or childcare — just the inability to get here. While I would not ever say that our price point is accessible to everybody, what we find is that in many cases, it’s not just a college tuition issue. It’s because they have all these other issues that they are trying to pay for. We know that if an individual who has a family, has a job, or maybe even multiple jobs, has some of those barriers in addition to us, we’re going to be the first thing that goes.
How might a free community college plan affect the number of people who pursue higher education?
At GRCC, we are about 70 percent part-time enrollment. A lot of folks going for associate degrees and credit-bearing classes are part-time. I believe that we’ll see that part-time rate start dropping because I think it will allow people to afford to take one or maybe even two more classes than they did before. So in other words, I think people who are coming here will be able to get through quicker, which I think that’s a positive.
That group of students who are on our campus who aren’t eligible for a Pell Grant because the household may make too much money, but they also aren’t capable of just writing us a check to pay for their school. It’s that group that I think will definitely benefit. I think those numbers of students will increase.
Is community college a way to keep people in Michigan and build their skills?
Our statistics show us that somewhere around 80 to 85 percent of folks who come to GRCC typically stay in the area when they finish with us. Our average age here is 25 years old, which means to us that those folks, they’re here. Those are people 25 and older, they are living lives right here in Grand Rapids or in Kent County or Ottawa County. They are home. What that results in is the power of the community college to be within the community and the community that is set here … wants to continue their livelihood in Grand Rapids.
Interview conducted and condensed by Jessica Young.