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Community Colleges

University Centers?

Partnerships for greater degree completion opportunities
University Business, May 2010
The Collin Higher Education Center opened in January and houses both classroom space and the administrative offices for Collin College (Texas). President Cary Isreal predicts the center will be "a blizzard of education activity."

Not having articulation agreements isn't the only thing holding students back when transferring from a two-year to a four-year institution. Most of these students still have the life issues that prompted them to attend a community college initially. An education model that can help them overcome these challenges is a university center, which combines the degree completion opportunities of four-year schools with the local convenience of a community college campus. "Busy adults can't travel and not everyone can learn online," notes Cary Israel, president of Collin College (Texas). The Collin Higher Education Center opened in January with more than 500 students and offerings from five university partners.

While each teaching center is unique, all of these centers have the goal of bringing education to underserved areas.

The university center's look can range from its own campus to available classroom space at an existing community college. Students may have dual-enrollment, but usually they are official students of the home campus offering the program.

Christine Kerlin, vice president of the University Center of North Puget Sound (Wash.), says the model is a wave of the future. "It offers an efficient and effective means of engaging people in advanced education." Her center began as a consortium in 1997 and evolved into a center managed by Everett Community College in 2006, with programs offered by seven universities. She adds, "We use space the community college doesn't have scheduled, and the degrees already exist."

A recent Association for Consortium Leadership survey discovered 64 U.S. organizations that self-identify as a "higher education center." They form either when a community college teams with a senior college or university, or when a state legislature decides an area is underserved, says Fred Baus, president/CEO of the University Center of Greenville (S.C.). His center falls into the second category.

Israel calls it "an answer to not jumping straight to offering a community college baccalaureate." Initially, 10 universities with existing preadmission agreements with Collin College were invited to join the center. Community surveys helped determine program offerings and got universities interested in joining, says Brenda Kihl, associate vice president of Strategic Initiatives.

Community demand also guides program offerings at the University Partnership Center at St. Petersburg College (Fla.), says Catherine Kennedy, associate vice president. When students request information on the UPC website, they are actually filling out a survey. A goal is to build a ladder from St. Pete's own offerings to an MA program. The UPC opened in 2000, so the partners' academic advisors are familiar with each others' offerings and will help transition students to the next level.

'Busy adults can't travel and not everyone can learn online.'
-Cary Israel, Collin College

Other guiding factors include requests from local businesses or area universities that may find students near one of St. Pete's 10 campuses applying but not enrolling. "We tap into data," Kennedy says, particularly in deciding which campus is best for holding classes.

Demonstrating demand is a big part of the program approval process at the University Center of Lake County (Ill.), says Hilary Ward Schnadt, associate dean for academic services and programs. A facility to house the center opened in 2005, but Schnadt is still concerned about ensuring low demand programs are not taking up valuable space.

Also key in selecting programs is avoiding duplication. "We don't want to split the market," says Kerlin. Yet, one partner can offer an online MBA while another uses a hybrid model, since those delivery methods attract different people.

Schnadt also tries to avoid duplicate programs, but finds the difference can be the institution offering the program, as is the case with allowing a public, a private, and a fully online institution to each offer an MA in Education Leadership. It's best to give a new program two years to build a following before introducing another version, she advises.

An advisory board with partner institution representatives is standard practice, but who should have ultimate control?

Israel subscribes to the community college having strong control of the center to ensure programs meet the needs of students, not the providing institutions. After all, the centers provide "a pipeline for the students to come from the community college to the university," says Kihl. The community college also benefits because students are more likely to finish their AA before transferring out since the partner institutions don't offer lower-level courses.

Gary Grace, executive director/dean at University Center of Lake County, says his partners prefer a more collaborative, voluntary arrangement to a business partnership. His center began as a voluntary arrangement in 1997 and eventually became the University Center of Lake County, a 501(c)3 company with a 14-member governing board. "You think the politics of a single university are interesting, try getting 14 together and see what happens!" he says.

Whoever is in charge, it is important to have strong relationships and an open dialogue with the partner schools, says Kihl. "You have to have a level of trust."

Flexibility is also important, says Kennedy. "We have a memorandum of understanding with each partner. We deal with public and private, large and small; what works for one doesn't work for the other."

'You think the politics of a single university are interesting, try getting 14 together and see what happens!'
-Gary Grace, University Center of Lake County

Baus advises having a community representative on the governing board, since local citizens will benefit the most.

Once the leaders are in place, special consideration has to be given to students. "We are continuously learning how to integrate the university students on a community college-focused campus," says Kerlin, who has met with EvCC security staff about parking and IT staff about network access. It helps that she's a former EvCC registrar. "You can't just sit on a community college campus," she says. "It is better to have those bridges."

UPC students are issued a St. Pete ID card to help in accounting for everyone in the event of an emergency, although they officially belong to their home campus.

Other organizational challenges exist, too. At UCLC, says Schnadt, a preadmission advisor helps students navigate class choices, but subsequent academic advising is provided by the universities, since UCLC staff don't have access to students' academic records. That makes it a little hard to prove success. "If the legislature and Illinois Board of Education had their way, they would hold us more accountable, but we don't have access to the databases," says Grace. In Spring 2008, his center requested completion data on students registered there and has asked that members track students who came from the community college partner.

Kerlin faces a similar challenge. "I'm only privy to a certain amount of information," she says. Yet, she has some leverage other center leaders don't. Pudget Sound's funding model provides money she can distribute to partner institutions to help keep student costs down. Partners receiving funding are required to provide some "aggregate numbers to see how we are doing with graduation," she notes.

Based on her observations, students attending the center are more likely to persist to their BA, not only because their goal is in sight, but because some programs have a cohort model, which makes it more difficult to drop out.

While Baus feels no pressure to track student progress, for a current marketing campaign based on student success stories his staff is contacting graduates to find out why they chose the center.

Despite not having her own tracking data, Kennedy knows that UPC is a success. "Degree attainment has gone up in the county." This much is true: University centers can be an efficient and effective model.