The New Wave of Community College Partnerships

The trouble with buzzwords: They water down the message. Just as the term privatization loses its financial punch through repetition in government circles and e-business clouds the corporate realm’s understanding, partnership smacks of ho-hum among community colleges.

In reality, partnerships -- whether between a community college and corporate executives, government agencies or another community college -- define the future. The leadership certainly takes this direction to heart: Recently the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) teamed with Microsoft to initiate a $7-million Working Connections program at 28 community colleges nationwide. Thanks to the business/ industry partnerships this cooperation money fosters, workers like Danny Nguyen in Sunnyvale, Calif., snag the training that leads to five-fold pay increases -- and thousands of others line up to pay tuition for their crack at similar opportunities.

Meanwhile, community college administrators eagerly anticipate results from the 21-month project the W.K. Kellogg Foundation funded for AACC and the Association of Community College Trustees to set a strategic direction for community colleges this decade. New Expeditions will document the impact of a 1988 report that advocated broadening the community college role by building communities, and elaborate on strategies to take advantage of current social, political, economic and technologic influences. Partnerships should rate among the most popular words in the document.

The Workforce Development Institute refuses to wait. Its 1999 conference featured forums on “Continuing Education and Training Partnerships for Success,” “The Presidents Speak: Working Together for Workforce Investment,” “Successful Partnerships in Distance Learning,” “Partnerships for Workforce Development: From Supplicant to Broker,” and “Statewide Partnerships for Customized Training.” Of the 20 advertised forums, half included an aspect of partnerships in the title.

“The traditional attitude toward employee development was that workers who wanted to get ahead would go to a college or university. Employers reimbursed tuition after the fact, and the involvement stopped there,” says Jerome (Jerry) Friga, president of Paul D. Camp Community College in Franklin, Va. “But since 1985, when American industry woke up to the fact it had to improve productivity or else, workers need training on a more continuing basis. Yet it’s really a distraction for businesses to do their own training in many ways.” This increased training demand naturally turned the spotlight on the one institution located in almost every town: the community college. Administrators needed to scramble just like their corporate executive counterparts to accommodate the switch.

Today, community colleges typically initiate corporate partnerships, insiders claim. “Look for people’s interests, then determine how to fit your offerings into that,” says Richard Rhodes, vice president for business services at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) in Utah. “Often community colleges are reluctant to ask, yet sometimes that’s all you have to do.” He speaks from experience; a local newspaper reporter asked one of Rhodes’s most significant partners why SLCC was chosen. “Because they asked first,” the Daddy Warbucks quipped.

Of course, not every entity presents a partnering plum. Successful partnerships require a few essential ingredients: a common interest, followed by an integrity that supports trust even during the lawyers’ legal hammerings on the contract. “Who’s the customer and who’s the supplier is always an interesting question,” Friga laughs. “We need customers, they need the training service and that’s where everything begins.”

Paul D. Camp Scores Big

When Friga and his staff saw a need for increased workplace development in the Franklin, Suffolk, Southampton and Isle of Wight area that Paul D. Camp serves, they knew they faced one potentially crippling barrier: The community college lacked the space for such training. Existing preparatory courses filled the campus structures -- and with only a 2,000 annual student enrollment, he lacked financial muscle to draw up expansion plans.

However, International Paper (formerly Union Camp Corporation) ranked among Paul D. Camp’s consistent customers, and the two had mutually developed credit and noncredit training courses for the manufacturer’s personnel. So Friga approached its executives with a different partnership deal: If the college could persuade local jurisdictions to put money into developing a workforce development complex, would International Paper put up the private funds for, say, a 20-percent partnership in the final property? That combination, Friga estimated, would carry weight at the state legislature to request the remaining funding. As luck would have it, International Paper was kicking around the idea of building its own corporate training center.

So it was a no-brainer for this corporation to agree to a $500,000 stake, although it declined ownership in favor of a donor status for tax advantages. A community family foundation matched the $500,000, and GTE chipped in $75,000. Buoyed by the attention, Franklin Equipment ponied up $50,000 -- following International Paper’s lead, these businesses, too, chose the donation route. Finally, the two cities and counties Paul D. Camp serves threw their $500,000 into the pot, stating the project offered valuable economic development advantages. The combined representation (including powerful union officials) before the state legislature helped win the day for the remainder of the necessary $4.85 million construction costs. The 32,000-square-foot facility opens this fall.

Paul D. Camp signed no agreements granting its donors an official preferred status, “but I can’t say we treat them just like everyone else,” Friga admits. “Because they were so supportive, we try as best we can to meet their needs. We are very committed to them.” He still charges the same fee-for-service rate as previously, but those low fees reflect the fact that the community college doesn’t carry enormous capital expenses on its shoulders. So in an indirect way, these company partners enjoy a break on their overall training costs. They also gain another space large enough to book private conferences; as of February, reservation calls were pouring into Paul D. Camp -- long before the building will be available.

Carolyn Crowder, Paul D. Camp’s director of workforce development, also takes pride in the community college’s Regional Workforce Development Council -- yet another winning twist to the partnership game. The college invited 35 community members -- mainly employers from across the region -- to advise academic officials on potential projects and strategic direction. “We even consulted chambers of commerce and economic development directors to determine who would serve on the council so it was not just the college’s perception,” she says.

The council, up and running since the fall of 1998, worked extensively to develop the college’s strategic plan, and conducts a check-up on those goals each quarter. “It may have been one of our most worthwhile endeavors,” Crowder adds, “because it ensures we provide what our employers really want.” Next on the agenda: a one-stop employment center for job-seekers. Partnering with Southeastern Virginia Job Training Administration, Central Service Agencies in the region and the Virginia Employment Commission to provide them a presence in a Regional Career Resource Center on the Franklin campus allows everyone access to the job market in new, profitable ways.

In a similar vein, Friga envisions a future where employers develop a promotion plan for blue-collar workers (a stepladder of skills and knowledge that automatically leads to promotion or pay increase), then leave the training to Paul D. Camp. Naturally, he and company officials would customize these routes, using the community college’s resources. The current partnerships bode well for this dream.

“We surveyed our audience more than a year ago, and discovered the college is very well thought of in the community,” he explains. In mid-’99, a consulting firm conducting a feasibility study for a major fundraising campaign reported similar results. It polled 99 people of influence and affluence in the community, who agreed the college was a tremendous asset to the region, one to which they’d willingly fork over private dollars. Friga attributes this good image in part to the positive ground these partnerships paved.

“An institution’s size becomes a nonissue,” he says. “That’s exactly the point of partnerships because, if we tried on our own to drum up these things, we’d fail. Partnerships provide a much greater strength.”

Salt Lake Community College on a Roll

Like his colleague on the other side of the country, Richard Rhodes needed more physical space to meet student and employer demands. Much of his story strikes a familiar chord: Rhodes first went to long-time customer Union Pacific Railroad, a partner with the college to develop training courses.

The two organizations put their heads together to devise a $15-million state-of-the-art building that handles chemistry, biology and other science programs. The state funded $10 million to support the community college programs -- Union Pacific Railroad sold bonds to put up its $5.1 million dollars toward the construction. That investment basically bought a 10-year lease on space the company needs to conduct private training sessions (approximately one-third of the total square footage). Because that cost won’t escalate as other leased space would, Union Pacific Railroad’s bottom line benefits. SLCC, of course, gains a building and garners attention from the nationwide employees who arrive at campus for the locomotive training their company holds there.

This collaboration represents just a sliver of the 500 partnerships Rhodes counts across his institution. This year his excitement bubbles over the 37,000-square-foot Larry H. Miller Entrepreneurship Training Center, the result of a partnership between car dealership mogul and Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller and SLCC to provide short-term intensive training for entrepreneurs seeking help to establish their own businesses. Rhodes began the conversations approximately eight years ago when he approached Miller for a donation.

“‘I really like the ideas; I like what the college is doing. I’ll get back with you when the time is right,’ he said. That realistically amounted to ‘no’ in my book,” Rhodes tells the story. Then, in 1998, Miller phoned out of the blue with the message that he was ready. The two cooked up a plan and sealed their partnership: Miller bought approximately 20 acres of land and committed to building nine facilities on the site, along with related parking and landscaping. He also set aside $600,000 in an endowment to pay maintenance and operating costs; SLCC adds monies to that endowment and purchased the moveable equipment as its end of the bargain. Gateway threw in 60 computers to create a partnership within a partnership.

The first two buildings, connected by a breezeway, opened in January 2000 and feature two large computer classrooms, two smart classrooms and a conference center capable of hosting 600 attendees. The Larry H. Miller Group will take advantage of the staff and facilities to train its employees -- Rhodes estimates that shakes down to just two percent of the time. “He did not want it built for his use,” Rhodes says. “His reward is great satisfaction. This is one way Larry sees to invest himself into the community, particularly business and industry.”

Such success spells a certain homerun for Rhodes’ next project on the drawing board: a 114-acre future in conjunction with the Jordan School District, one of five public school districts in the Salt Lake Valley Area. The first building, ready for use in spring 2001, provides an applied technology center for the high school. Technically, SLCC rents eight acres of land for $1 a year to the Jordan School District, upon which the school district will use bond issues to build three 30,000-square-foot facilities for secondary students. Jordan handles building maintenance; the college takes care of the grounds; the school district builds parking areas; SLCC maintains those vehicular spaces. Jordan uses the classrooms by day; SLCC by night. Dual credits seem an almost certainty.

“Partnerships give the college a much better exposure within the community, the state and nationally,” Rhodes says. “These are unique partnerships you may find in a university setting but typically not with community colleges. Such forward-thinking lends us a better standing during the legislative sessions because taxpayers fund the facilities.

“The key to partnership success is an entrepreneurial spirit -- the spirit to look into the future, set your vision and go after it,” he adds.