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Greenfield Community College

Pura: In changing higher education landscape, GCC must act cautiously

Greenfield Community College president Robert Pura.

Greenfield Community College president Robert Pura.

GREENFIELD — In an ever-changing higher education landscape, Greenfield Community College President Robert Pura wants the school to enter 2014 performing a delicate balancing act of adapting to new trends while not losing sight of what has led to student success.

For instance, GCC will need to continue expanding its online courses in the coming year, he said, but shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to quickly ramp up the program just as a way to bring in more money.

From new available technology to turbulent higher education politics, schools today are under pressure from a number of sources, said Pura.

But making changes for short-term gains will only end up hurting students in the long run, said the GCC president, who studies education trends and serves on an accreditation panel that reviews New England colleges and universities.

Updated technology has made it possible, even tempting, for schools to hastily introduce huge online courses as a way to quickly bring in new revenue, said Pura. But there are more factors that need to be considered, he said, like making sure that students don’t get lost and behind on work in classes with thousands of students.

That’s why he said GCC’s rollout of online courses happened cautiously — with limited class sizes and faculty advisers who prepare students for online learning and help them along the way. Enrollment in online classes is up more than 45 percent from last year.

There’s more demand nationwide to get students trained for science and technology jobs, said Pura. Colleges are rushing to introduce programs, even while simultaneously some companies like Google are no longer requiring a college degree for employment.

While he believes GCC should answer this call, it shouldn’t do so at the expense of liberal arts courses — which a majority of the college’s 2,200 students often depend upon as a foundation before transferring to four-year schools.

President Barack Obama’s plan to rate higher education schools’ affordability for students will set off a new chain of quick actions, predicts Pura, especially once the administration announces which metrics it plans to use in the rating process.

He doesn’t want GCC to be among the colleges and universities who start “chasing numbers for short-term results,” he told the college’s board of trustees at a meeting earlier this month.

“If you’re only about the short term, I think you’re going to be lost at sea,” he said.

Still, Pura stressed that it’s important to keep moving forward.

The college has worked at increasing its advising options for students to help funnel them into the best career tracks. In 2014, he’d like to see more academic counseling and wants to talk with local businesses about setting up paid internships for students.

“We’re not perfect,” said Pura. “Not every area of the college is doing exactly as they or we would want, but they’re aware of it and they’re working at it.”

Finding a way to fund the college’s growth continues to be a challenge, he said. Increased funding by the state this year (from about $8 million to $9.6 million) helped the college restore some previous cuts, but money is still tight in the $25.3 million budget.

“Faculty and staff might identify a needed change, but we’re not able to afford it, or it might take two or three more people to accomplish it,” he said.

In addition to seeking state money, Pura said that GCC staff are always on the lookout for grants. But even there the college should tread lightly, he said, and only pursue grants that can be tied immediately to specific projects or programs. Not every grant out there will improve the college, he said.

You can reach Chris Shores at: cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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