Chancellor Madeline Pumariega is in the Business of Opportunity

Miami native leads students to aim higher and secure employment

Courtesy of Madeline M. Pumariega

Madeline M. Pumariega is the chancellor of the 28 colleges that make up the Florida College System and serve 800,000 students. She is the state's first female and Hispanic Chancellor.

Madeline M. Pumariega is the chancellor of the 28 colleges that make up the Florida College System and serve 800,000 students.

Appointed as the first female and Hispanic Chancellor in August 2015, Pumariega works to ensure that all students have a pathway toward earning a degree or professional credential that ultimately helps them get a job.

A product of the college system herself, Pumariega began her academic career at Miami Dade College and later returned to the college where she spent 20 years and became president of the Wolfson Campus. Pumariega was instrumental in building workforce programs by leveraging key partnerships in the community.

Before becoming chancellor, Pumariega served as president of Take Stock in Children, a statewide nonprofit focused on breaking the cycle of poverty through education. Take Stock in Children has helped more than 25,000 students living in poverty successfully complete high school and move into post-secondary education and careers.

Steve Bornhoft, the director of editorial services at Rowland Publishing and editor of 850 Magazine, caught up with Pumariega at the 2017 Gulf Power Economic Symposium, held at Sandestin.


A Q&A With Madeline Pumariega


850: How does the community college system benefit from the perspective you bring to your job? 

Madeline Pumariega: First, I am a product of that system and I understand the kinds of challenges our students experience and the opportunities they have. Secondly, I spent 20 years inside Miami-Dade College. So, I understand things from an institutional standpoint. Thirdly, I am Hispanic. Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic population in the country, and we need to consider that group in terms of attainment levels. Nationally, attainment (earning a post-secondary credential) is 41 percent and among Hispanics, it is 21 percent. Florida and the United States need a talent pool. We can’t afford to leave a large group out. We are going to create more skilled jobs, so we have to ask how we are going to bridge the gap between what those jobs will require and the skill levels that many of our young people currently possess.


850: There are a lot of people looking for jobs, but there are a lot of jobs looking for people.

MP: It’s the high-paying jobs that are looking for people.


850: How does the system go about recruiting minority students and are you satisfied with that effort?

MP: If you look at Miami-Dade College and Broward College, we are No. 1
in producing Hispanic and black graduates. The real number to look at is the percentage of high school graduates who are going on to college. We need to create a college-going culture at home. And by that I mean, a culture that encourages young people to earn a post-secondary credential. That starts early, when parents begin to talk to their children about going to college. But in many homes in poverty, conversation has more to do with how the light bill is going to get paid, how to put food on the table. Sometimes, the conversation about college doesn’t come.


850: How do you overcome poverty as an obstacle?

MP: When we look at outreach to our high schools, we try to identify those schools whose students are least likely to go on to college. That’s where our colleges are providing dual-enrollment opportunities so students can start college when they are in high school. If students are exposed to college early, they are more likely to think about it and enroll in college. And, another important statistic is that nine out of 10 students who graduate from the Florida College System remain in Florida.


850: Affordability surely is among the selling points of the Florida College System.

MP: Yes, less than 25 percent of our students take on debt and, when they do, it is less than $5,000. It’s not crippling. They can get their first job, pay the student loan off and go on to own a home.


850: Not long ago, one of the most important numbers for community colleges was the percentage of their graduates who went on to earn four-year degrees. Is that still the case?

MP: Our fastest growing programs are certificate programs. They can be completed quickly and they lead to jobs. But the average age of our students is 26 because those certificate-holders come back and want to get their associate’s degree. Fifty-one percent of our students are pursuing an associates of arts degree that leads to four-year programs, but the other half are there looking for a credential that gets them a job — 
a certificate, an associate of science degree, a workforce baccalaureate.


850: So, in a real sense, you are in the workforce preparedness business.

MP: I would say so. We are open access. Every student who applies gets admitted. We are the pipeline to the universities. Slightly over half of the juniors and seniors at the universities are our students. And they perform just as well as a native university student. But the other half is going to work and becoming part of the state’s workforce.


850: Are you a first-generation American?

MP: I am. My parents came from Cuba. They were processed at the Freedom Tower in Miami and sent to Texas. They were reunited with family from New York, but being from the Caribbean, they acclimated well to Florida. The first summer they came here, they stayed.


850: How would you rate the product coming out of our high schools today? Does it need to be better?

MP: I think about our next generation of writers in this age of Snapchat and text messaging and Twitter. They are challenged when the professor turns to them and says, “How about producing a full-length story?” But think about the exposure that the students coming out of high school today have had. The world has been at their fingertips. Even our poorest families have access to the internet at the public library. Today’s students have a different level of curiosity, and you can’t reach them by teaching the way I was taught. The soft skills, though, that’s a big one. Every business leader wants someone with an aptitude for teamwork, communication skills and common sense, but those skills develop over time. We want to microwave everything. But leave those students in the oven for a while and they taste even better when they come out. They have had time to sit and settle and mature.  

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