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Future Driven: The Changing Role of Community Colleges

Henry Ford College President Russ Kavalhuna took a non-traditional career path. The son of an immigrant he made career stops as an airline pilot and federal prosecutor before discovering his passion for education as a law professor teaching night class.

Now at the helm of Henry Ford College, which has the motto “Future Driven,” he is leading the institution through a time of great disruption and change. As the largest recipient of Detroit Promise Scholarship students and a supporter of the Detroit Regional Chamber-led Talent Compact, the College and Kavalhuna are at the center of the conversation on the changing role of community colleges.

HFC is the largest recipient of Detroit Promise scholarship students. Why has that program been so successful there? 

RK: Probably the biggest factor in our success is significant investment in our Student Success Coaches. We currently have three full-time coaches, and are working to add a fourth. With support from the Detroit Regional Chamber and philanthropy, we provide a personal coach for every Detroit Promise student to provide guidance and support. The coach meets with the student to help them transition from high school to college, to overcome obstacles, to develop good study and work habits, and to set a path for success.

How are we going to achieve the post-secondary education attainment to 60% by 2030? 

RK: We are off to a strong start with several programs pushing this effort. The Detroit Promise is an excellent program that gives high school graduates from Detroit a tuition-free path to a college degree. The state is now scaling that concept of tuition-free access to college for essential workers through the Futures for Frontliners program and the MI Reconnect program for Michiganders 25 and older. Michigan has also wisely continued funding the Going PRO program that provides competitive awards to employers to assist in training and retaining current and new employees at local colleges.

I see the next major step as building employer-led agreements where colleges, like Henry Ford College, partner with industry to develop curriculum that directly meets employers’ needs, in exchange for a promise to hire graduates. Philanthropy and industry are in early stages of envisioning these employer-led efforts for Southeast Michigan, and we have been honored to be part of the discussion. We need to scale that work across the region and state.

As we move beyond COVID-19 and rebuilding the workforce, how are community college going to evolve to meet employers’ needs? 

RK: Community colleges have the agility to work with employers in real-time, updating our curriculum, instruction, and technologies to stay in step with their needs as those needs emerge or change. We can provide customized training for businesses that need to upskill their existing workers.

We offer training programs like the Ford ASSET program that embed students directly within their careers as they transition from on-campus learning to on-site practice. We also recently installed a training facility or “pole yard” on our campus for overhead line workers. We are using it to train new workers, and DTE Energy has used it for their training. There will be hundreds of thousands of jobs in the skilled trades in the years to come. We are evolving to respond to needs as they emerge.

HFC recently received a skilled trade grant from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, what is unique about that program? 

RK: It really is visionary because it will show employers that partnering with colleges is the pivotal way to solve the skills gap. We used the grant to start the Middle College Trade School at Henry Ford College. This is a dual-enrollment program that costs families nothing. It is unique because it is a consortium spanning multiple school districts. Students will earn associate degrees, certifications, and transferable college credit in skilled trades fields. The program is focused on jobs that are opening up in large numbers due to growth in the electrical, plumbing, HVAC, construction, and manufacturing sectors, as well as the retirements of existing workers in these fields.