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Cities and Higher Education: Sustainable Growth through Collaboration at the Intersections

The EvoLLLution | Cities and Higher Education: Sustainable Growth through Collaboration at the Intersections
Collaborations between higher education institutions and cities have the potential to be mutually beneficial both in the short and long term, but developing these kinds of relationships takes effort and support.

Local governments and higher education are dissimilar and similar. A few distinctions are that U.S. Cities are home to 62.7 percent of the U.S. population (Census Bureau, 2015) whereas 6 percent of the population are enrolled in a college or university (NCES, 2015). Additional differences include governance structures, cultures, and the types of services and products offered to their primary constituents, residents and students, respectively.

Nonetheless, despite the contrasts, local governments and postsecondary institutions share parallel challenges. When comparing the critical imperatives facing cities (NLC, 2014) with the challenges facing higher education, the intersections are evident.

Local governments and postsecondary institutions are continually trying to figure out how to create new revenue sources to remedy perpetual budget pressures. Cities and higher education are concerned about equity and quality in the K-12 system and access to higher education. For postsecondary institutions (depending on the type of HEI) and cities, infrastructure, modernizing the transportation system, upgrading facilities, and harnessing technology innovations have been at the forefront of both enterprises. While cities are engaged in efforts to advance economic security among residents, higher education is focused on devising retention strategies for degree completion that can lead to greater economic security for college graduates (NLC, 2014; Rainwater, 2016).

Local governments and higher education also agree that there is a role private for-profit companies can play to help resolve these challenges. However, determining the optimal configuration of public/private partnerships is still in play.

Cities and postsecondary institutions respond to these questions haphazardly within their organizational silos and incongruously across external partners. However, what if, instead, the enterprises recognized the intersectionality of their challenges, the interdependence of their solutions, and endeavored to work together to create holistic strategies that are mutually beneficial?

While the statistics are not flattering, American voters trust local governments more than state and federal politicians: 37 percent, 22 percent, and 12 percent, respectively (NLC, 2014). This makes sense since cities are where government is closest to the people and where measurable change can be felt. Similarly, while it is a 13 percent decline from 2009, 42 percent of Americans say college is necessary for success in the workplace (Public Agenda, 2016). Local governments and higher education should take advantage of its comparatively positive public image and  engage in collaborative and iterative work to achieve sustainable growth in the near and long terms.

How can cities and postsecondary institutions work together to address challenges such as the implications of shifting demographics? The digitization and automation of blue- and white-collar jobs will continue to make economic stability uncertain and uneven. What can local governments and higher education do to resolve this predicament? What can cities and higher education do to harness the burgeoning creative and gig economies? How can local governments and cities leverage each other to build sustainable infrastructure, affordable housing, 22nd-century facilities, and state-of-the-art technology solutions?

Answers to “the how questions” do not demand complex strategies or 20-person commissions. A simple solution is for higher education leaders to take the initiative to identify small, potentially high-return, school-based projects that intersect with measurable components of the city’s strategic plan.

Small scale projects are ideal for city/higher education partnerships because failures are often easier to recover from than those stemming from mega projects (EconTalk, Marohn, 2014). Wins and mistakes can be made quickly and frequently. Also, data collected from small-scale projects can be used as fuel to accelerate buy-in for future partnerships and to underpin large-scale intersectional opportunities.

Presidents, deans or provosts can identify a project, appoint a person with entrepreneurial savvy to lead it and serve as its sponsor. Those who directly manage programs and operations are usually closer to how things work and thus, can serve as valuable resources for not only recommending projects, but also for leading them.

The appointed project manager, given her research and her sponsor’s support, connects with local government leaders who are responsible for the previously specified component of the city’s strategic plan. Assuming support from the city is offered, the project manager and city collaborators can identify potential solutions. Then, senior leaders from the college/university and local government can determine if they should be implemented and, if so, how each can contribute resources for the design, development, execution, data collection, and continuous quality improvement of the solution.

For instance, under the direction of Georgetown University’s Dean of the School of Continuing Studies (SCS), Dr. Kelly Otter, I am working on a project that includes support from the District of Columbia’s Chief Creative Economy Officer, Maryann Lombardi.

One of D.C.’s strategic goals is to grow the city’s creative economy, which corresponds to the school’s mission to deliver a world-class, values-based education to a diverse array of communities and individuals throughout their academic and professional careers; to improve employability and develop workforces; and to contribute to building a civic-minded, well informed, and globally aware society.

Currently, we are collaborating with Ms. Lombardi to collect data that Dean Otter can use to determine if the school should develop a new program and how that program could be structured to achieve the school’s mission and the city’s vision. The assistance the school has received from the city has been instrumental. To-date, Ms. Lombardi has helped to organize focus groups, facilitated networking with both private and non-profit companies, and provided expertise on the design of a survey instrument.

Realistically, there are costs to this collaboration, namely the time spent on the project and the investments required to implement the solution. There is no guarantee that the partnership or solution will be successful. However, when considering the potential benefits of projects such as higher education co-sponsoring local government campaigns to raise funds to eradicate homelessness, and cities co-sponsoring the development of higher education programs that can drive entrepreneurship in the community, the costs may be worthy of the efforts.

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