MiraCosta College: Looking to future of affordable higher education in North County

As Dr. Sunny Cooke, President of MiraCosta College, identifies the problems of today, she also trains herself, her staff, and her students to look to the future. What will education and technology look like, and how do they create a just, equitable, and sustainable future?

“We are training ourselves to look 10 years down the road. Decisions we make today have an impact on where we are headed,” said Cooke. “Are we headed to the future that we seek to create, or are we just marching down the road to wherever everybody else is going?”

What is Future Thinking?

For the past 3-4 years, MiraCosta College has been working on developing “futures thinking” with the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA. Futures thinking is a creative thought process that uses trends and drivers to consider as many future outcomes as possible. It helps to strategically plan for the unexpected to ensure a path to one’s desired future.

“We are hoping to train students in this work and have internships, taking the futures thinking to their businesses and communities,” said Cooke. “We want to bring more futurists into the work so that we, as a community, can define where we want to head in the future and be proactive about the decision-making that we’re doing today.”

Since 85 to 90 percent of the 21,000 student population at MiraCosta College tends to stay local after graduation, the school has tremendous ability to impact the community, but they can’t do it alone.

Educating North County Together

Teamwork is central to North County higher education. Palomar CollegeCalifornia State University San Marcos (CSUSM), and MiraCosta College closely collaborate to educate students and strengthen the future workforce of the region.

Cooke played a significant role in establishing these relationships. Being the senior-most college president in North County, Cooke welcomed and provided support to Dr. Ellen Neufeldt and Dr. Star Rivera-Lacey as they assumed their presidencies at CSUSM and Palomar College.

“I was very aware that I had an opportunity to set a tone,” said Cooke at a recent event featuring the three presidents. “We share a lot of students and even some of our employees. We learn from each other, and we are really supportive of the work that we do collaboratively here in North County.”

Internships and Community Involvement

MiraCosta College also encourages business and industry involvement on campus. Through Industry Advisory Boards, they review programs and curriculum to ensure they adequately prepare students to be successful.

The college also has an active Job and Internship Network (JAIN) on which employers can post jobs and internships for students to engage in work-based learning opportunities. About two-thirds of students take advantage of these opportunities each semester.

This community feeling and collaborative nature of North County is one of the most-cited reasons North County Stewardsprefer this region. MiraCosta College helps instill this value in the next generation’s workforce through its robust Service Learning program.

“Students apply what they learn in the classroom into a service operation that makes a difference in their community,” said Cooke. “Philanthropy is a part of our culture, and it’s really improving community-mindedness.”

A College President in North County

A former professor of biology and biotechnology, Cooke became president of Grossmont College in 2007, just as the recession was hitting.

“In that period, I learned to do with less and less resources while protecting the core of the institution and maintaining morale,” she said.

The opportunity to become president of MiraCosta College came in 2016. As president, Cooke’s days are typically very long with early mornings, late nights, and a lot of meetings focused on internal operations, community impact, and workforce development.

Even with her full schedule, she makes time to enjoy her surroundings. MiraCosta (literally “Look, the coast”) provides Cooke with a proximity to and view of the ocean she said she never takes for granted.

“My favorite thing to do to unwind is just to walk along a quiet beach, so I always look for opportunities – if I ever have a gap between meetings or at the end of a day,” said Cooke.

In-Person to Online and Back

Only a few years after becoming MiraCosta College’s president, however, Cooke faced the challenge presented by COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Before the pandemic, if you had asked me, ‘Would it be possible for us to transfer everything online with a week’s notice?’ I would have said, ‘No way will that be possible.’ Yet, we proved that the impossible is possible,” said Cooke. “Now the challenge is to get people over the enormous fatigue that comes with that innovation and pioneering.”

Getting students interested in returning to on-campus activities now that they have experienced the convenience of the 24-hour nature of online schooling has proved challenging.

“It’s clear when people get back to campus, they really enjoy it. That human connection is huge, because when times get tough, it’s so easy just to pull back and throw up your hands,” said Cooke. “But if there are people who are counting on seeing you, you are more likely to stick through the difficult periods.”

An Affordable Education

Keeping education affordable for students is both a value and a challenge, but the college continues to bring in grants and create programs to fund their vision. In fact, the MiraCosta Promise offers two free years of college if a student goes to school full-time.

“We really believe that anybody in our community who seeks a higher education, an opportunity for a good career, and a family-sustaining wage should be able to do that right here in North County,” said Cooke.

While MiraCosta offers associate degrees and certificates, many may not know that the college has its own unique bachelor’s degree, which costs only $10,000 for the entire 4-year degree. This biotechnology bachelor program isn’t offered anywhere else in the nation, and it combines science with quality assurance and production. The college also forms partnerships with other institutions to offer affordable bachelor’s degrees locally.

“We’re using grant funding as well as partnering with business and industry to really have them recognize the importance of [affordable, quality education] opportunities and being in partnership with us as we train the next generation, their future workforce. We can’t do it alone. They can’t do it alone. So that partnership is crucial,” said Cooke.

If anyone interested in partnering with MiraCosta College on any of the business and industry opportunities listed in this article, they are encouraged to contact Lynn Bigsby at lbigsby@miracosta.edu. For more information about MiraCosta College and their efforts, visit their website at miracosta.edu.

Written by Caitlyn Canby from San Diego North Economic Development Council.

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