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Understanding and Sharing Impact Critical to Growth for Community Colleges

The EvoLLLution | Understanding and Sharing Impact Critical to Growth for Community Colleges
Community colleges have a significant impact on their local communities—both in terms of human and economic impact—but that contribution must be understood and shared by institutional leaders to create change.

Community colleges play a critical role in supporting their local regions and economies, but that work is often overlooked and underplayed by those outside the postsecondary industry. This is compounded by the fact that, oftentimes, institutional performance metrics rate and rank colleges and universities without paying attention to the unique missions or demographics served by each institution. In this interview, Bill Pink reflects on a few of the metrics community college leaders can and should be tracking to generate a clearer sense of the impact the institution can have on its region.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How does supporting the local economy and labor market fit into the goals and mission of a community college?

Bill Pink (BP): The mission of a community college is embedded in the name—community. The way in which community colleges impact the local economy is through the very fabric of our work, which is to provide graduates who are ready to work, ready to transfer to a four-year institution, or both.

Many community colleges have a focus on career and technical education through applied associate degrees or non-credit-bearing workforce training programs, and both of these pathways are specifically built to support the local labor market.

Community college programs that are designed to provide a pathway to a baccalaureate institution are also important to the local economy. Students are able to complete half of their baccalaureate degree at an affordable price point, and in many cases, enjoy smaller class sizes. This pathway provides many students every year with a great avenue to the next institution, and a great start on the journey to a career.

Evo: In your experience, what does it take for a college to measure its economic impact?

BP: Having recently completed an economic impact study of our institution, that is, measuring the economic impact of our community college on the west Michigan region, we reported on a number of indicators. The major indicators included the total income added to the county, total jobs supported in the county, the rate of return to taxpayers, and the rate of return to students. These are elements that are not only helpful to us as an institution, but are also meaningful to our stakeholders.

The next iteration of this assessment will be to identify informative metrics associated with how our workforce training efforts (customized training with individual companies, training that allows an employee to upskill and increase wages, etc.) are impacting the community and region. To be clear, these data are imperative in stating the case of relevance, responsiveness, and impact that the community college provides to the community, region and state.

Evo: What are a few strategies a community college can put into place to further drive and grow its impact on the local economy?

BP: Strategies in this regard should include partnerships with local businesses and companies. The term “partnerships” can mean a variety of things. In this case, partnerships include things such as regular communication about what is going on in their industries (competencies, equipment, etc.), working together on internships, apprenticeships, tuition reimbursement, and using them to inform programmatic decisions.

Another strategy is to form strong partnerships with K-12 stakeholders. When this is combined with what I describe in regard to industry partnerships, the community college is then able to work with both groups in providing strong academic and career pathways for students beginning in their middle/high school years, through the community college, then to a four-year institution, during which the industry partner is staying alongside of the effort by providing internships or work opportunities that will not only help sustain the student’s pocketbook (preferably paid position AND tuition reimbursement), but also assist in building a career pathway. Remember, everything should always refer back to what we are doing to help our students be successful, which will in turn help drive the impact on our local economy.

Evo: How should economic impact play into the rankings and performance metrics of a community college?

BP: Any metric used in measuring performance needs to be equitable to the group being measured, and education is no exception. Community colleges as a whole are diverse in how we are structured, governed, and located, all of which affect how we perform and what indicators we pay attention to the most. Moreover, in the state of Michigan we do address partnerships with businesses and K-12 institutions as partial indicators associated with our state funding formula.

That said, there are those indicators that can play well across institutions, specifically in student success, and all of us, through regional and specialized accreditation, strive to adhere to those indicators.

In relation to economic impact, we would do well to leverage those data that prove the economic value of the work we do. In short, making the business case. At our institution, our study, conducted by EMSI, indicated a nearly half-billion-dollar impact on the region, and the additional analysis yet to be done should put us comfortably over that half billion-dollar mark.

As one could imagine, we are shouting that message to the hilltops of west Michigan and informing our constituents of the economic impact of this institution, thus encouraging them to not only take pride in their community college, but to also realize that further investing in the institution is money well spent!

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