Howard Community College’s Quality Journey

President Kate Hetherington
President Kate Hetherington

In November 2017, Howard Community College (HCC) was recognized by the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award judges for exemplary practices in two categories: Customers (category 3) and Operations (category 6). This honor is a major milestone in the College’s quality journey, which began in 2003 when HCC first applied for the Maryland Performance Excellence Award. Though they didn’t receive the award that year, the pursuit fueled organizational improvement by aligning their key performance indicators (KPIs) with the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. Four years later, in 2007, their efforts were recognized with the U.S. Senate Productivity Award for Maryland, which positioned the College to apply for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Located in Columbia, MD, Howard Community College has been an AFIT member institution since 1993, a tradition that continues today under Dr. Kate Hetherington, who has served as the College’s president since 2007. Known for her student-centered approach to leadership, President Hetherington has revamped the college strategic planning process, added academic programs in high-demand fields, and focused on increasing degree completion and transfer to four-year colleges and universities. Under her leadership, HCC has grown to nearly 30,000 credit and noncredit students and reached the highest student graduation rate in the College’s history.

“AFIT has been an important part of our quality journey and success,” said Hetherington. “I always have great takeaways from the Summer Institute. In 2013, I brought the President’s Team with me to Boston, where we learned about systems thinking. When we returned, we used that approach to review how we were processing the summer term registrations and payments, which impacted several areas of the College.” She also cited Ritz-Carlton, Disney, and Southwest Airlines as learning partners whose business models have helped shape the College.

In 2017, HCC reached another milestone when the institution was selected for its second Baldrige site visit. In October 2017, the Baldrige examiners spent four days onsite, interviewing nearly 1,000 faculty, staff, and trustees. “In many categories, the site visit helped improve our overall score because the examiners got to experience Howard’s culture firsthand and confirm and clarify the information that they read in our application,” said Hetherington. “They were able see how our focus on students is threaded throughout everything that happens at HCC.”

It’s that focus on students that President Hetherington believes is the driving force behind HCC’s recognition in category 3, “Customers.” The College has created a constant feedback loop that enables its leaders to listen to their students, faculty, staff, and community members and then act on the feedback they receive. This constructive dialogue is achieved using a number of feedback vehicles. One of the most impactful is their “Commission on the Future,” which brings together the entire community every five years to look at key areas, including STEM, building global competence, technology and its impact on the organization, health care, sustainability, and workforce development. The process enables the College to listen to its stakeholders’ diverse needs and incorporate those needs into HCC’s strategic planning process.

This methodical approach to operations contributed to the Baldrige examiners’ recognition of the College in category 6, “Operations.” HCC follows a “plan, do, check, act” model in which they design work processes and improve them with feedback. They set goals and monitor results against key performance indicators, which align with both the Baldrige framework and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education accreditation standards. Their efforts are paying off. At the conclusion of the 2014–2015 academic year, Howard Community College experienced an 86% increase in its graduation rate over the prior six years. This record achievement was the highest percentage increase seen across all of Maryland’s 16 community colleges and exceeded the statewide average.

In addition to the recognition from the Baldrige examiners, Howard Community College is also the recipient of numerous awards. In 2017, Washington Monthly named HCC as one of the “Best Colleges for Adult Learners,” and The Chronicle of Higher Education named it a “Great College to Work For” for the ninth consecutive year. In 2016, The Daily Record included President Hetherington in its list of “Most Admired CEOs.” When asked about the secret behind their success, President Hetherington pointed to the fact that continuous improvement is part of their culture, which impacts everything from how their employees are treated and compensated to the level of service provided to students.

With the new year upon us, President Hetherington and her team are eager to review the Baldrige examiners’ report in detail and begin preparing the next application. “Our journey continues,” said Hetherington. “There’s always room for improvement, but I feel good about where we are today.”

Please join us in congratulating President Hetherington and the Howard Community College team on this outstanding achievement!

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