A Conversation With Dr. Colleen Simpson

Last summer, FRCC’s president Andy Dorsey retired after 13 years of service to the college, and FRCC needed new leadership. Dr. Colleen Simpson stepped up to the plate. With multiple decades of experience in higher education, a doctorate, and a masters degree, it’s clear why CCCS had Dr. Simpson on their list. Most recently she was the vice president of student services and regional learning centers at Northeast Wisconsin Technical college- a school with three campuses, five regional learning centers, and well over 40,000 students, compared to FRCC’s 27,000 students.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Simpson about her life, her position at the school, and some of the challenges that FRCC faces going into her tenure as president.

“I would say my journey started very early in my career,” Dr. Simpson said. “When I was a student in my undergraduate, I got involved with student government, and I think that fueled my passion for working with students, and helping students, and I transferred those skills after I graduated and got my first opportunity to work at a community college. I always like to say it’s part of my intrinsic value to work at a community college … What I love about a community college is that it’s open to all students, and all students can be successful”

“I enjoy providing opportunities for students, removing barriers so they can be successful,” Dr. Simpson said about how she got into an administrative role. “So I took that passion, and continued growing in my career, and had many different roles. I was an academic advisor, I worked in the registrar’s office, I was a faculty member who taught, and then I crossed over into administration and started leading departments and teams, and I realized that I want to do more by making sure that I am a part of the conversation of change. That’s what led me to get my doctorate degree, because I wanted to continue not only to learn as a person, but [also to] influence change so that students can have the greatest success.”

“What I love about a community college is that it’s open to all students, and all students can be successful”

“I spent about 20 plus years in New York City at the City University of New York working in various positions,” Dr. Simpson said. “For the last almost five years I worked in Green Bay Wisconsin at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, and in that role I was the Vice President of Student Services and regional learning centers. That work really enriched my experience- because I got the opportunity to work at a predominantly white institution that was seeing changes in their student demographics. And working in NYC, I was on the opposite end. I was working with some of the most diverse students- not just based on race, but on gender, and identity- and that gave me lived experiences that most people don’t have at all- ‘How do you ensure equity and inclusion for all students’- so that’s part of my intrinsic value.”

That experience at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical college was an important part of the decision to hire Dr. Simpson as president, since she already had experience managing a college with multiple campuses. 

“Her work at Wisconsin, where she worked with multiple campuses, was important,” Joe Garcia, Chancellor of CCCS, said in an interview with KUNC. “We needed Dr. Simpson to have some familiarity with managing three very different campuses that are in different communities and certainly serving different students. And she brings that experience.”

Dr. Simpson reflected on her work at NWTC.

“In Wisconsin I was able to create programs, work with businesses to think about diversifying their workforce and creating inclusive environments,” Dr. Simpsons said. “That’s really important for me because that sense of belonging for students is what allows them to thrive in your institution.”

As for why she chose to work at FRCC specifically, “Front range is an amazing institution, and when I worked with a search firm, and applied for the position… I knew that it was an institution that would embrace what I had to bring,” Dr. Simpson said. “My commitment to equity and inclusion, my commitment to access and opportunity for all students, and my commitment to academic excellence. So all of those things align with my identity, and just as much as Front Range was interviewing me, I was interviewing them, because that fit is very important.”

Dr. Simpson has mentioned something she calls “intrinsic value” a few times now, and I asked her to elaborate on what exactly she means by that.

“My intrinsic value is: ‘What allows me to be the best person?” Dr. Simpson said, “When I talk to students [I say]- I want you to be the best person in this world that we live in. What is going to allow you to be the best person? For me, it’s Integrity, treating people the same way I’d like to be treated, it’s respect, and it’s also, for me, the love of knowledge. “…” that’s what drives me, that’s what keeps be [being] the best person.”

I asked Dr. Simpson what the greatest accomplishment of her career was, she told me that, aside from becoming the president of FRCC, her greatest success was building relationships.

“In order for success to happen as the president, you have to build relationships with everyone,” Dr. Simpson said. “So I always say to my teams- we talk a lot about students, we talk a lot about enrollment, we talk a lot about retaining our students, and completion for our students- everyone at the college plays a role in that, even down to facilities. Because if you look at our facilities, if they’re not clean, if the classrooms are not ready, technology, I.T., So for me, that relationship building across the entire college is important. That’s how success happens- knowing that everyone plays a role in our student success initiatives.”

“To sum it up, my job is to ensure that FRCC remains a college of choice for the community.”

Dr. Simpson described her role at the college in one sentence.

“To sum it up, my job is to ensure that FRCC remains a college of choice for the community,” Dr. Simpson said, “and what that means is that we have to be accessible to our students, which means we’re going to have to offer flexible options, we have to create a sense of belonging for our students, and we have to make sure our students are having an experience that allows them to be successful. Students shouldn’t be shuffled around from office to office, there shouldn’t be all these business processes and barriers in place so that a student can’t get what they need to be successful. My job is to make sure the college understands that, and that I meet with teams, and I coach, and I challenge, and I look for opportunities, and then I also value the people who work here. Because we are all about our students, but our employees, we have to invest in them also.”

Under Dr. Simpson’s leadership, FRCC will be undertaking a structural reorganization. Part of that is something she just touched on, removing barriers.

“I call it process barriers, we have to remove process barriers for our students to be successful,” Dr. Simpson said. “We have to create user-friendly environments for our students: our students shouldn’t be going to all three of our campuses and getting a different experience- or have to do duplication of work, because that’s not going to allow the student to focus on what they need to focus on, which is learning. So, right now I’m doing what I call ‘listen and learn’ sessions, I’m going around to all stakeholders at all of our campuses, and I’m asking them a series of questions to gain their perspective on how they see themselves at our college. There’s four questions that I ask every group- the first question is “how can we better serve our students”, the second question is “what specific educational skills or learning opportunities should the college be addressing”, so, ‘what do our students need to be successful. The third one is “what do you like about FRCC”, think about our accomplishments, and the fourth one is “what don’t you like about FRCC?” So, what are our concerns? What are the challenges that we face?”

Four Questions:

  1. How can we better serve our students?

  2. What specific educational skills or learning opportunities should the college be addressing?

  3. What do you like about FRCC?

  4. What don’t you like about FRCC?

The four questions Dr. Simpson is asking during her ‘listen and learn’ sessions.

FRCC has been struggling with a low level of student engagement for a while now- few people know who’s in student government, fewer still vote in the elections, and for at least the last two elections, at most one person ran for each position- meaning there is no competition for SGA. It’s under this context that I asked Dr. Simpson if student involvement was important to her.

“Student engagement is part of student retention, and so in order for us to retain our students, we have to create different models of engagement for them,” Dr. Simpson said. “I have not met yet with the SGA, it’s on my calendar to meet with them, so we can talk about how to re-engage students. You know, we’ve gone through a crisis this last two-three years, and all of us are thinking differently, all of us have a different work-life balance now, but the one thing I do know is that the more we engage students, the more that they feel they are part of our community here on campus, the greater success they will have. So I’m looking forward to having that conversation, with students and with the student life team, to talk about ‘what does re-engagement look like for our students.”

With any change in administration, it’s expected that there will be changes in practices, procedures, and policy. Dr. Simpson explained what sorts of changes she’d like to pursue.

“For me, I am finding the common denominator,” Dr. Simpson said. “I am asking our college to re-imagine our future, but saying ‘the student is at the center. So how do we continue to build a student-first culture? And that requires us to examine everything that we do, and to take a look at some of our historical traditions, and see, ‘are they still working?’ or do we need to continue to re-imagine or evolve. For us to do that, we have to do it together.”

Dr. Simpson used an analogy to the popular home-improvement channel, HGTV.

“I love HGTV, everybody knows that. I have a couple of favorite shows, [and] it’s very hard [to pick a favorite] because I watch them all, but Property Brothers, Hometown, and Love it or List it are my top three. I always say to everyone, what I love about Property Brothers is that every family has a dream home, and they come in and they say, ‘here’s your dream home’, and they put a price tag on that dream home, and what usually happens? The family is like ‘oh that’s not within my budget’. So they take them out and they say, ‘okay, here is a great home, that has a great foundation- great bones- but we can do this together. Here are the things we can do to make it your dream home.’ That’s how I see my role at Front Range: we’re an amazing institution, we’re doing great things, but I want us to dream a little bit- and re-imagine what our future looks like, and everybody can play a role in that.”

Full year, full time enrollment, excluding concurrent enrollment. Academic years 2013-2022.

FRCC has seen relatively sharp declines in enrollment since its peak in 2013. To put it into perspective, FRCC’s Westminster and Larimer campuses have both seen enrollment declines of approximately 50%, the Boulder campus has seen a decline of 55%, and the Brighton campus had enrollment so low that it was closed last summer. Even accounting for the rise in online classes, total enrollment at FRCC (all campuses, plus online) is down 40% since 2013.

I asked Dr. Simpson what the plan was regarding this declining enrollment, and she started by adding some additional context.

“I think to put it all in context- enrollment has been declining for the last ten years, and that’s a nationwide trend in community colleges, so it’s not just unique to Front Rage,” Dr. Simpson said. “And part of it is, when we think about our peak of enrollment, we were in a recession, and so you have to look at all of the variables that impact enrollment. … There are different models that has impacted it. If you look at our trend data around the birthrate, you will see, not only in Colorado but nationwide, there’s less births, you’ll see high school graduation rates have shifted- less students are graduating from high school. You’ll also see over the last couple of years that our adult learners have moved into the workplace because of [higher] wages.”

Fall full time enrollment, off site & on site combined, from 2005 to 2022, compared to that year’s average unemployment rate. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Total fall full time enrollment, all FRCC campuses, including online. 2005-2022. Y-Axis starts at 3000 to emphasize changing enrollment.

“So I always like to say to everyone that there’s a funnel around enrollment and you have to look at ‘what are all the variables that are impacting enrollment?’” Dr. Simpson continued, “So for us right now we are stabilizing our enrollment because we are coming off of a pandemic. This fall we’re looking much better, we’re getting back to those numbers we were pre-pandemic. And then after this fall we have to say to ourselves, ‘where [is] there growth?’ And one of the things I’ve been using, the phrase is, ‘you have to love the students you have’. So it’s not just about enrollment, it’s also about retention, because if you retain more of your students, you have less of a revolving door related to enrollment. So you have to pair the two together in order for success to happen. So I’m looking at enrollment, I’m looking at retention, and I’m also looking at completion, because you want the students who start to also earn their credentials and their degree. So all three of these play into the ecosystem.

She said more specifically that there is a plan to assess and deal with the issue.

“You asked ‘what’s the action plan moving forward?’- I’m coming in and doing an assessment. So my goal is to do a Strategic Enrollment Management Assessment, to understand who are students are, who are our intentional audience that we should be going after based on the communities we serve, and what do we need to put in place from a onboarding, from a marketing, and from a support [perspective] for our students. And that’s going to be happening in the next year or two.”

Dr. Simpson gave a specific example of one option the college is pursuing to increase enrollment: business partnerships.

“The new model is going to require us to partner with businesses,” Dr. Simpson said. “One of the things we’re doing really well right now is, we’re looking to see what businesses need to upskill their workers. Because enrollment is about diversifying your pipeline and your portfolio, and so you’ll have your high school students, you’ll have your adult learners, but you’ll also have your companies that you can work with and say, ‘which of your employees need to be upskilled?’ We just went into a collaborative agreement with Amazon career choice. What Amazon is offering [is] an opportunity for all of their employees to have tuition and fees paid for. So I’m looking to create an ecosystem where we’re not competing, but we’re drawing upon all of our strengths so that people who live within our communities have access to education.”

Dr. Simpson provided another example of changing student preferences.

“We have to adapt to our students’ demands,” Dr. Simpson said. “So if the trend is showing that our students need flexibility, that’s what we as a college will have to do. We see a trend where students are more part time, so if a student is more part time, you can do a cause and effect and say, ‘they’re probably working, or there’s some other things happening in their lives while they have to go to school part time.’ So if a student is going to school part time, we know that they can’t come to class 5 days a week. So we, as an institution, have to build flexible models, and that includes online, hybrid, real-time remote, all of those have to be factored into the new model for us because our students are demanding these things.”

With declining enrollment, student engagement, and a coming restructuring- FRCC is going to face a lot of challenges in the coming years, and Dr. Simpson will undoubtedly have a lot on her plate. But with decades of experience in education, years of experience managing another college with a similar structure, and with input and assistance from the staff and students at FRCC, Dr. Simpson is well prepared to handle such a challenge.

Corrections:

  • Nov. 7th 2022: A previous version of this article stated that Dr. Simpson had two masters degrees. She only has one.
  • Nov. 7th 2022: A previous version of this article referred to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College as NEWTC. The correct acronym is NWTC.

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