Coffee with Impact: Dr. Richard Rhodes

President/CEO of the Austin Community College District

Dr. Richard Rhodes, president and CEO of the Austin Community College District, joined ACC in September 2011 after serving as president of El Paso Community College for 10 years.

Rhodes received his bachelor's degree in accounting and his master's degree in educational management and development from New Mexico State University.

He earned his doctorate through the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas.

Rhodes serves one the economic development committees of both the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, and he is a member of the board of American Youthworks. He is a certified public accountant in Texas and New Mexico.

What are some of the ACC board of trustees' goals for the upcoming term?

The whole focus of the board is on student success. That means taking it a step at a time and seeing where a student enters ACC and what they need to get them to the next level and ultimately to graduation or transfer or employment. Not everybody who comes to ACC wants to get a degree, and not everybody wants to transfer. But they do want to get a job. So how do we help them get from Point A to Point B?

How does ACC work with community partners?

One of the ways is through customized training. We have specific industries and businesses here. They need their employees to get additional training and skills for that company to be successful. Through our continuing education and workforce area, we work with that company to provide customized training specifically for that business. We have program advisory committees on all of our degree programs, so we get constant feedback on what our program should look like and how we need to change the curriculum to make it better, and to keep it updated with the needs of business and industry.

As an example, with [Proposition] 1, we began looking at that and what the impact would be on us at ACC, and where we needed to position ourselves for that to be ready. We know that somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 percent of the jobs that will be created as a result of a four-year medical school in Central Texas are going to require a two-year degree. What are those skill sets going to be and how do we need to add new program areas or modify existing ones to be ready for that?

Recently we solicited some Department of Labor grants in order to help us change our curriculum for the future. Historically we think of college education in terms of three credit hours [per course]. But if you truly break down each of those hours, there are some specific competencies that you are expected to learn. If a person wants to get an associate's degree in computer programming and go on to get a bachelor's degree, what are the specific competencies that you want that student to obtain? So we got a DOL grant—our share of it is about $2 million—to convert computer programming from a credit-based program to a competency-based program.

What is the best way for a business to get engaged with ACC?

Each business has specific skill set desires and needs. The best way is through program advisory and working through the chamber of commerce to express those needs. We also want to know what the needs are of business and industry and see how we can modify [our programs] to meet those needs. It could be the customized training, or it could be that we could go in together, through the Texas Workforce Commission, and get a grant that could help them. We've been successful in doing that for retraining. I would really love to see expanded numbers of paid internship possibilities for our students, which is good for everybody—the student and the business. It's good for the college because it keeps students on track. Seventy-five percent of our students work part-time, so it's a great way to get them earning money so they can continue [their classes].

How does ACC plan to use the Highland Mall site in the long term?

We completed the purchase of the Highland Mall about two months ago. It's 84 acres and 1.2 million square feet. We still have about 90 tenants who will stay through the holiday season. We are starting on the construction in the spring. The first building [to be remodeled] will be the JC Penney's building. It will take about 12–14 months. That is an exciting project. It is 200,000 square feet with two floors. Almost half of it is going to be dedicated to the math emporium a [500- to 600-seat] accelerated math emporium for those students who need help in math before they are ready for college-level mathematics. It's going to be a huge open lab. Some of the instruction is going to be through a professor to students. A lot of the instruction is going to be self-paced and have peer tutors. The other half is "swing space" for when we have renovations at another site, so students who are displaced can attend class while we are renovating.

How will ACC's new campuses in Elgin and Hays County contribute to the growth of the college?

Elgin is the first one that is going to open, in fall 2013. It's ahead of schedule and under budget. We have large numbers of place-bound students that wouldn't [otherwise] have access [to college]. Elgin is a pretty long commute to attend our other campuses. We look at how we provide access to a new population and look at what are the programmatic needs of that specific community we now serve. We'll also have more transfer degree programs because of the close proximity to Texas State.

What would it take for Pflugerville to get an ACC campus?

It has to come from the community. We cannot advocate for it. We can provide information as to what a difference it makes as far as in-district tuition and out-of-district tuition. It has to be a groundswell from the community to want to have ACC in the community. That's what happened in Elgin, that's what happened in Hays County. We've got two different beginnings of a groundswell of support for annexation in two communities right now. The first is Pflugerville and the other one is in Fredericksburg.