Ender leaving Harper but still has 'itch to change the world'
Harper College President Ken Ender will wrap up his decadelong tenure at the Palatine-based community college this week, but he's not calling it a retirement.
After his employment contract expires next Sunday, the 69-year-old Inverness resident will get the title president emeritus -- with business cards, to boot -- and he'll take some of the initiatives he introduced at Harper into his next chapter as a consultant. He hopes to persuade educators and policymakers to test the initiatives he launched at Harper on a broader scale.
"I've still got an itch to change the world, so I'm gonna scratch it for a little bit longer," said Ender, during a recent interview with the Daily Herald Editorial Board.
He's already advised a Democratic presidential candidate about some of his ideas on higher education, namely, the idea of a "communiversity," which would electronically link local public school systems -- elementary, high school, community college and university -- to work together to move students through a lifetime of education and training.
Ender wouldn't reveal which of the nearly two dozen candidates he's spoken to, saying only the person isn't well-known.
Still, if the candidate picked up any speed in the crowded field, "I would go to work for him in a heartbeat," Ender said.
Secretary of Education one day?
"That would be fun," he said.
In the meantime, Ender will pitch his ideas and provide leadership training to doctoral students at North Carolina State University, as part of his two-year appointment as a professor of practice in the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research. He plans to stay in the Northwest suburbs for at least another year, but work in North Carolina and Washington, D.C. as an adviser to students and faculty.
The idea of a "synthetic" unit school district is an outgrowth of what Ender helped implement in 2010, shortly after taking the helm at Harper. Called the Northwest Educational Council for Student Success, the college partnered with three feeder high school districts -- 211, 214 and 220 -- to develop programs and share resources and data to better prepare students for college and careers.
It's led to growth in the number of students taking dual credit classes at Harper, from 1,121 high school students enrolled in 2012 to more than 4,000 students in 2017. Also during Ender's tenure, the college's graduation rate climbed from 13.9% to 32.7%.
"You get a fast start, you lower your costs, and you get on your way, is the idea," Ender said. "I think there's no reason in the world that we couldn't do that on a much grander scale."
Another result of the schools' partnership was the Promise Scholarship program -- perhaps the marquee initiative of Ender's presidency. The program rewards students in the three high school districts with two years of Harper tuition for keeping good attendance, maintaining a minimum grade-point average, performing community service and graduating on time.
About 4,600 high schoolers signed up when the initiative was launched in 2015. Harper officials estimate some 350 to 400 freshmen will be in the first Promise cohort, with classes beginning this fall.
Ender said about half the initial group dropped out in the first year for failing to meet the community service requirement, then half those who remained in the second year because of attendance and grades.
With an initial goal of raising $10 million, Harper now has $18.6 million in its Promise endowment. Ender believes the program is sustainable.
"I think it's the kind of program -- as more and more students become eligible for the full scholarship -- it'll be easy money to raise," he said.
Ender came to Harper in 2009 after 11 years as president of Cumberland County College in New Jersey. He described the Harper campus at the time as "a weird place." His predecessor, Robert Breuder, left for the College of DuPage after 11 years at Harper, during which time the faculty issued a vote of "no confidence" in him and went on strike.
"Today people I think feel quite good about working together, irrespective of labels," Ender said. "Faculty and administration work together. We do everything together ... I think just getting people less paranoid about trusting one another to be on the same side is something that I'm going to feel good about when I leave the college."
What Harper and other community colleges still need to get better at, Ender says, is accommodating adult learners with more online and blended classes, and additional competency and shorter-term credentials.
"I would double down on what I said 10 years ago: the scale at which we have to educate Americans is larger than at any time in our history, and if we fail to find ways to move folks through a postsecondary credential that has some labor value attached to it, I don't know how we compete with the developed countries internationally," he said.
Avis Proctor, only the sixth president in the college's 52-year history, officially takes over for Ender next Monday.