HIGHER EDUCATION IS having an "a-ha" moment, and Ken Kay is seeing it happen. As president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an advocacy organization, Kay works with education officials, business leaders, and policymakers.
To Kay, dialogue between K-12 schools and institutions, postsecondary education institutions, government, business, and public agencies is on the rise. "I think those conversations are just starting to happen, and it's gratifying to see," he says.
Education stakeholders, including community colleges, are coming together to improve links with the workforce in order to better prepare students. The fruits of these labors are streamlined systems, more clear career paths, and solid cost savings.
"The strength of these public institutions, when they collaborate, is very powerful," says Dana Mohler-Faria, president of Bridgewater State College (Mass.) and special advisor for education to Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. "What we're seeing now is a far better understanding on the part of the institutions about the necessity of [creating collaboration], and about the fact that it's not only in the long-term interest of the Commonwealth, but it's in their own interest."
Community and technical colleges are filling big shoes in today's collaborative environment. They enroll 6.6 million credit-bearing students, with a focus on meeting local and regional needs. It makes sense that these institutions would be involved in efforts to strengthen education and push forward reforms.
In Massachusetts, that's exactly what is happening through an effort spearheaded by Governor Patrick to strengthen the entire educational pipeline. The governor's plan entails aligning content and ensuring universal, free community college access, among other goals. As part of the reform process, 13 subcommittees of 150 individuals from education, business, government, and the public sector are conducting the "Readiness Project," an evaluation of current challenges and systemic issues in Massachusetts education. One topic being explored is how community colleges can create a synergy with each other to ensure a coordinated effort of educational development, says Mohler-Faria.
A subcommittee dubbed "High School Plus" is evaluating the transition to postsecondary education. As liaison between the subcommittee and the project's Leadership Council, Daniel Asquino sees the need for stronger ties between community colleges and other educational systems. "We are wasting too many resources and not coordinating our efforts," says Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett Community College and the longest-serving president of a public higher ed institution in Massachusetts. "There has to be this universal concept that this is what we have to do.
In 2008, the Readiness Project will put forth recommendations for advancing Governor Patrick's reform goals. Connecting preK-12 with community colleges and four-year institutions will play prominently in the initiative's next steps.
Consortiums and partnerships-while not a new idea in higher education-are making strong footholds in the community college realm.
The CONNECT initiative in Southeastern Massachusetts exemplifies the benefits of collaboration. A partnership between Bridgewater State College, Bristol Community College, Cape Cod Community College, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Massasoit Community College, and the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, CONNECT pools resources and strengthens services for the businesses, agencies, and people of the region.
"We share faculty, we share students, we have a lot of transfer between the community college and the four-year, and sometimes back," says Jane Souza, CONNECT's executive director. "We meet a lot of the same workforce and community development needs, because we share the same footprint. So what can we do better together than we can do separately?"
To answer that question, heads of each CONNECT institution meet at least eight times a year; other high-level officers meet regularly too. The initiative has a small budget ($27,500 contributed annually by each institution, plus grant funding) but has managed to have a big impact.
Regional employers benefit from CONNECT in concrete ways: When MEDITECH, also known as Medical Information Technology, decided to build a new facility that would employ 900 people in southeastern Massachusetts, the company reached out to CONNECT. Two campuses launched programs specifically to train students for employment there. The partnership also created a shared career fair calendar allowing students to view job information and attend a fair on any participating campus.
The CONNECT Screening Center allows human resources staff to evaluate students from any of the six campuses, and Regional Leaders Council members listen to the needs of businesses and local organizations. The Employer Assistance Model responds to regional employers' requests by convening career center personnel from various campuses. Other projects have connected faculty from participating institutions and K-12 educators.
To date, CONNECT has saved its partner institutions more than $1 million, according to Souza. That cool million includes shared IT training ($21,440 across three campuses saved), a shared banking services contract for three institutions ($300,000 saved), a shared auditing service ($52,000 saved), the Collaborative Leadership Development program to train midlevel professionals at each school ($451,400 saved), and the CONNECT Skill Center/ Screening Center ($200,000 saved versus the cost of individual centers).'
While state-level initiatives fuel the collaboration fire, the ultimate aim is often to meet regional needs. The RISE initiative (Regional Industry Skills Education) in Wisconsin is implementing career pathway models for clear, accessible education and services across various regions.
Still in its early stages, the initiative is gathering input from business representatives, public agencies, and higher education officers to create a new vision for how Wisconsin residents acquire skills, complete education, and attain better-paying jobs. RISE is funded through a $1 million grant and is led by the Wisconsin Technical College System and the Department of Workforce Development in partnership with Wisconsin's 11 Workforce Development Boards and 16 technical college districts.
"The idea that everyone finishes a program in a set number of weeks or months has to be set aside," says Kathleen Cullen, vice president for teaching and learning for the Wisconsin Technical College System. "We need to be able to have people move into the workforce and then come back into the educational system when they are ready to acquire more skills."
RISE also works with stakeholders from K-12, the University of Wisconsin System, state government, and other entities. "The key to success is to engage employers and build partnerships, and then on the educational side we need to press for more curriculum and instructional innovation, and for more student support tools," says Cullen.
Curriculum innovation is at the heart of many partnerships and collaborative initiatives like RISE. Since traditional content area instruction is not necessarily producing well-prepared employees, what skills and knowledge should students acquire?
"Kids today are told to take four years of math, four years of science, four years of English," says Kay of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. "But the workforce is saying we need critical thinkers, good collaborators, globally experienced students. It's not clear how the subject matter relates to the skills employers are looking for."
The organization has created a framework for outcomes students should have to be competitive in the workplace. In Wisconsin, the Partnership and the American Diploma Project are both involved in evaluating and streamlining what students learn in classrooms. And the Wisconsin PK-16 Leadership Council is looking at ways to strengthen the state's educational pipeline.
"This is a very serious look at our standards and some serious consideration of policy implications," says Paul Sandrock, assistant director of the Content and Learning Team at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. "We have not really had the articulation between high school and postsecondary established, other than that certain courses were required. Now we are looking at the content piece as well. The technical colleges, our University of Wisconsin system, and private colleges are all in the conversation." This conversation, like those going on around the country, is just getting started.
Caryn Meyers Fliegler is a former editor at University Business.