A new president at the helm

Settling in as the new president at Johnson State College, Elaine Collins has been getting to know the area and the people. She says everyone has been very welcoming, and it has been a great transition from Michigan.

A first-generation college student, Collins earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music with honors from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), a Master of Arts Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of California at Davis and a Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Leadership from Ohio State University. Over the past twelve years she has worked as Dean of the College of Education at Grand Valley State University in Michigan where she raised nearly $10 million in funds to benefit academic programs and scholarships.

Before becoming a dean or president, Collins was a college professor. At Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, she taught a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses including Curriculum Development, Grant Writing and Social Foundations of Education. Being an advocate for making college affordable for all students and helping students from all background achieve their educational goals, Collins also served on the Board of the Literacy Center of West Michigan, and the Seeds of Promise Educational Impact Team, a nonprofit organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Taking over at Johnson State at a time when enrollment is at a low for most traditional undergrad schools, especially in the Northeastern and Midwestern states, and when more and more students are having trouble affording higher education, Collins says the college needs to focus on affordability by revisiting financial-aid packaging that might help students, and it needs to focus on retention.

“For me, my strategies will be around three main ideas,” said Collins. “One is that, I believe, retention efforts are really a big part of enrollment, and so it is equally important to ensure that students are experiencing a very solid education here at Johnson, and that they have lots to do, and are interested in staying here.”

A couple of new initiatives are unfolding to help the college attract more students as well as give students the supports needed to succeed at JSC without feeling pressured to drop out or transfer. One of those initiatives was creating a new JSC Viewbook to better capture student achievements at JSC and how a liberal arts college can help students develop skills necessary to thrive in the real world and advance positive social change.

Collins will be establishing a Strategic Enrollment Taskforce in the coming months to create a concrete target plan, and decide whether it would be most beneficial for the college to flatten out the enrollment numbers or grow them. The taskforce will work to determine how large a growth Johnson State’s infrastructure can handle.

According to Collins, the administration is also exploring possible new graduate programs, and ways to ensure that existing programs remain competitive and relevant to the student demographic while remaining within Johnson State’s mission. She would like to explore ways in which technology can be better integrated into the classroom, and really look at what students need.

“Curriculum is not static,” she said. “We are always trying to figure out how to improve courses for better student success, retention and timely graduation. I am also beginning a pilot program called MAPworks to help the institution form a plan around these topics.”
MAPworks is a research-based pilot program that identifies specific criteria to determine what students are at a high risk of leaving the college. Currently, the program is only looking at freshmen, and the first to second year retention rate, but if the program works well, Collins hopes to expand it to sophomore and junior classes as well.

When the program flags a student as needing more resources, the results are sent back to the student and its advisor, so that together they can come up with a comprehensive plan to help that student succeed at JSC.

Collins is also considering becoming the COPLAC (Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges) institution for the state of Vermont. There can only be one designated COPLAC institution in each state and Vermont doesn’t have one yet.

Established in 1988, COPLAC seeks to advance the aims of its member institutions and drive awareness of high quality, public liberal arts education in a student-centered environment. Membership in COPLAC is reserved for small to medium-sized primarily undergraduate colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and currently consists of 27 colleges in 25 states and one Canadian Province. Its smallest campus enrolls 800 undergraduates, while its largest currently enrolls 7000. Every campus must be dedicated to helping students reach their full potential, both personal and professional, through a demanding course of study.

According to COPLAC, successful membership applicants must offer a broad education with an emphasis on educating, rather than simply imparting specific skills. They must bring faculty and students together on a human scale, offering ample opportunities for personal contact, possess vibrant extra-curricular activities that transcend academic programs, offer access to individualized education at prices common citizens can afford, and commit to preparing students for a life of active citizenship and public service. More information about COPLAC can be found at coplac.org.

Other ideas to boost enrollment and retention include increasing marketing and outreach to potential students, and revisiting financial aid to see how awards can incentivize students to attend Johnson State. Collins would also like to figure out a way to partner with other educational institutions in the area. They can be high schools, like Lamoille Union or People’s Academy, or technical schools like Green Mountain Technology and Career Center (GMTCC), but the hope is that these schools will give more of a vocational training, and then students can attend Johnson State College for expansion into a business administration degree so that they can start their own business in that trade.

“I’m definitely interested in speaking to them so that we can explore ways in which we can be really good partners,” said Collins. She has already contacted GMTCC in Hyde Park to discuss how the two institutions can effectively work together, and is waiting to hear back from them for a meeting.

Johnson State College, from Collins perspective, is a leader in terms of high-impact educational opportunities, which give students experiences that will connect them easily to their next steps in life, whether those steps are jobs or careers in their fields of study. These opportunities include internships; study abroad trips, global opportunities, and writing intensive courses that help students become stronger in their personal achievement. Collins said that JSC’s high-impact education could benefit students entering college from all backgrounds as they not only look for a solid education, but also put the skills they learn to work on and off the campus.

Collins would also like to put students’ fundraising skills to work in her search for alternate revenue streams to supplement the budget.

“I think that finding resources to do the good work that JSC has done in the past, and continue to do that work in the future will always be my biggest challenge,” said Collins, “and if I don’t support what I’m passionate about, who will? It is important for individuals to step up, identify what’s important to them, and then help support whatever cause it is.”

Collins believes that the involvement and engagement of students in fundraising is important in increasing interest in the college, and she’d like to see Johnson State students identify and fundraise for their own projects as well, hopefully to benefit other students. For instance, students could start a scholarship fund for other students to tap into, and so recognize the importance of philanthropy, and giving back to their community.

Collins has met with SGA President Nasser Abdel-Fatah regarding this idea, after he approached her to discuss student needs. She then subsequently met with the SGA senators to get their opinion on student fundraising, and has since set up a phone-a-thon to be held on Giving Tuesday (December 1). Other than that, no other fundraising efforts are concrete, but Collins hopes that more students will bring ideas to her.

Another idea to increase funds to the college is to reach out to people in town, businesses or individuals, and invite them to share their stories of how the college has affected them. Collins said she wants to really show the impact that JSC has had on the surrounding community. She wants to meet with businesses in the area, to learn how the college can partner with them, and strengthen the college’s relationship with the town.

“I just love the close-knit community here,” said Collins. “I like that feeling of being on a small friendly campus, where people can really forge their own trail. My former campus was a very large campus, and it was much harder to develop intimate relationships with people, just because there were 25,000 students enrolled.”

Because Collins wants to develop relationships on campus, she decided that when she took over there would not be any staffing changes in the near future, and is sticking by that. She wants to get to know her staff and faculty, and get a feel of how they work together. There is at least one new staff member on board though, as the Executive Assistant to the President Heloisa Herder resigned at the end of the spring semester, and Cecilia North was recently hired to fill the position.

Since Collins arrived in Vt., she has been familiarizing herself with the surrounding area. With a very active lifestyle, she’s also been looking at biking the rail trail, as well as the bike path in Stowe. Having lived in Pownal, Vt., Collins says she is very excited to be back in this beautiful state with her family, and with friends in the area.

“We just have amazing people here, and everyone here seems truly committed to community, and has a passion for service,” said Collins. “Students, staff and faculty are doing wonderful things in changing the world both economically and socially.”