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Community College President's Spotlight | Greg Smith
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A NACCE Entrepreneurial President Profile:

Dr. Greg Smith, Central Community College, Grand Island, NE

Dr. Eric Jones

Central Community College serves a 25-county area in central Nebraska. It is one of six community college areas in Nebraska. Dr. Greg Smith assumed the presidency in 2008 after having joined the multi-campus institution as executive vice president in 2006. He previously spent 10 years as a vice president at the Community College of Denver and also worked as a research psychologist at the University of Denver.

Central has three main campuses in Columbus, Grand Island, and Hastings and educational centers in Holdrege, Kearney and Lexington. Additionally, the college uses a variety of distance learning techniques to provide educational services in some 90 communities in its service area. Central offers 33 career and technical education programs.

As one would expect, the economy in the area serviced by Central is heavily based in agriculture and agribusiness. Also several large manufacturers in the region, including Case International, are growing and providing jobs in the larger towns. Ethanol production has helped sustain some parts of the area; although that business had a downturn during the recession, it bounced back quickly.

Central’s unduplicated enrollment of just over 25,000 students is almost equally divided between credit and non-credit. After growing at a steady 2 to 3% for several years, enrollment jumped by 12% in the 2009-10 school year before easing back to 4.3% growth during the recent school year. "We have a service area where the population holds pretty steady at 300,000,” says Smith. "We already had a high participation rate, so the 12% surprised even us.”

While other many community colleges across the country experienced multiple years of double-digit growth during the recession, a year of such growth was unexpected at Central because Nebraska has the nation’s second lowest unemployment rate. The statewide unemployment rate peaked at 5% in 2009. "The state’s unemployment rate just went down to 4.2%, and across our service area it varies from the low 3s to low 5s,” says Smith.

There Are Still Challenges

The region is not without an economic challenge, however. A shifting population brought on by the growth of agri-business is changing the region’s landscape. "The 2010 census shows that in our service area we gained population in five counties and lost population in 20 counties,” says Smith. "The areas where we gained population tend to be along Interstate 80. The youth are leaving the smaller farming communities as farms become larger and more mechanized and need fewer workers.”

Serving an area that stretches for approximately 14,000 square miles obviously creates its own challenges. "Taxpayers throughout our service area pay taxes at the same rate, so we take the access and equity issues seriously and try to provide services across the whole area,” says Smith. "The key to this has been a long history of developing courses that can be delivered remotely.”

Central began delivering courses via mail to outlying areas in the late ‘70s. By 1990 the college was delivering courses online through a precursor of the Internet. Now, of course, the college uses learning management systems to deliver content to the desktop, and an upgrade is in the works that will deliver video instruction to students in their homes. In addition, the college also has 18 video classrooms that serve the 25 counties; these classrooms also can connect into the region’s 80-plus high schools.

Supporting Entrepreneurship at Home

Central offers a six-course, 18-credit-hour Entrepreneurship certificate and students can ladder that into a Business of Applied Science degree. "Also, on our Hastings campus we have a business incubator program that started in 1990,” says Smith. "During the 20 years of experience we’ve had 12 different entrepreneurial efforts that have taken place on that site in the incubator program. We provide space as well as expertise in the incubator.”

"In 1990 when the Hastings incubator started, a member of the community who was very concerned about small business donated money to use as a revolving loan fund for small businesses,” adds Smith. "The original sum of $150,000 is still intact. We’ve had pretty good success with that model. Business owners are required to prepare a business plan when applying for a loan and an advisory board works with them. Right now we have $64,000 available for loans. This is not micro-lending; loans vary from a couple of thousand to about $5 thousand.”

Central is tackling another challenge in Grand Island where the downtown, like many rural downtowns, has seen better days. A Business Improvement District (BID) has been created to help revitalize downtown; two Central staff members serve on the BID committee. "The idea is to get building owners to think about themselves as being an incubator of sorts,” says Smith. "If someone comes to the BID and says I’d like to open a store or some other business, the BID serves in a matchmaking role, getting building owners to understand that small businesses are very fragile in their first five years. They encourage building owners to think long term so they might give up a little rent the first year and some the second year.”

To help with the education of the entrepreneurs, Central provides workshops that break down its entrepreneurship courses into short units that busy entrepreneurs can fit into their hectic schedules. The college is also establishing a more traditional incubator concept in leased space in Columbus.

Serving Entrepreneurs Abroad

While the distance from one end of the 25-county region served by Central to the other may seem far, that’s nothing compared to the program the college is conducted with Bahrain Polytech, half way around the world. "We received an entrepreneurship planning grant from U.S. Dept. of State USAID Higher Education for Development,” says Smith, "and are partnering with Bahrain Polytech to help Bahrain develop entrepreneurship capabilities. Like us, they want to build a culture of entrepreneurship within their students and try to get them to think in terms of entrepreneurial small businesses or even large businesses.”

Back at home, Central has encouraged all its programs to have at least one course that explores entrepreneurship as an option. "We’re not trying to turn them into entrepreneurs, but maybe some time in the future they’ll remember that course and they’ll have an idea,” says Smith. "An example would be our Culinary Arts program; a lot of students in that program want to eventually be independent business people in the hospitality industry.”

Central began to develop an entrepreneurial course for the middle and high schools some years ago through a Perkins Grant. "The idea of the program is to get students to understand what entrepreneurship is and to help them develop business plans that will lead to success rather than just lead to the start up of a business. "A number of students have gone on to develop small businesses within their communities or to support family businesses,” says Smith.

An Entrepreneurial Culture

Smith characterizes the culture at Central as entrepreneurial. "I’ve worked in community colleges in two other states and have also done quite a bit of consulting and this particular community college is at least as entrepreneurial as any place I’ve been or seen,” he says.

As one example of how that culture demonstrates itself, Smith points to the success Central has had in bringing in revenues from its Training and Development Division, which generates about 85% of its own budget. "We have either been the lead or partnered on more community based job training grants from the Department of Labor than almost anyone,” he says. "We not only do a lot of training for business and industry in our service areas, but we also do it in service areas of most of the other community colleges around the state. They get to count the FTEs, but we get the tuition revenue and any other revenues that business and industry is willing to pay for the services we provide. We do everything from leadership training to heavy trade and industry training such as welding.

"I try to foster an entrepreneurial attitude by letting people do their jobs,” adds Smith. "We’ve got a lot of highly capable people, and I try to provide some occasional direction and understand what they’re doing and be well informed so I can, in turn, inform our board. But I think if you turn creative people loose, you generally get good results. To me the key to success is hire good people; they make you look good!”

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