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Looking Under the Hood: The Role of Urban Community Colleges as Economic Engines

The EvoLLLution | Looking Under the Hood: The Role of Urban Community Colleges as Economic Engines
By truly partnering with local businesses and forging a joint interest in student success, community colleges can go past simply plugging skills gaps and serve as an economic engine for the region.

It’s easy to see the prominent place that academic certificate and degree programs play in the daily life of the urban community college where I’ve hung my hat for over a decade. With signature programs like Culinary Arts, Human Services and Nursing that rank consistently at the top, Hudson County Community College continually meets the needs of its community and transforms lives.

We provide over 60 programs across six divisions as well as a rich set of non-credit and workforce offerings that provide learning and employment opportunities for a highly diverse student population.

What isn’t as visible as our academic programs, however, is the critical role that our college plays in the economic development and growth of our county and surrounding area. Interactions and partnerships with area employers—the businesses, non-profit organizations and industries that provide opportunities to our students and graduates—strengthen the financial health of the entire region. We are an economic engine.

A New Model for Curriculum and Partnership

We’ve all been reading more and more about the need to align curricula to the expectations and requirements of local and regional businesses. Deeply understanding those expectations, in ways that transcend traditional advisory boards, enables innovations in curricula and programs that lead to employable graduates who our partners want to interview and hire. Entrepreneurial flexibility within an academic institution is key. And you’ve got to know what your partners want. My team can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if they don’t match to what our partners need, they won’t go anywhere.

At HCCC, we recently partnered with Eastern Millworks, a custom woodworking company that embraces advanced technology to automate high-end manufacturing and installation. They provide unique architectural solutions for many of the finest properties in the world: music halls, medical centers, business centers, and others. In collaboration with HCCC, Eastern Millworks has created a European-style dual educational apprenticeship program in which students receive on-the-job training while being paid a salary, profit sharing and full health benefits. Concurrently, students enroll in the community college’s new Advanced Manufacturing degree program. The program culminates with students appointed as engineers with a salary of $70,000.

The unique, co-created curriculum includes courses at the college in 3-D digital design, engineering graphics, and introduction to material science while students learn sketching, building code basics, millwork, tooling and other topics directly at the job site. Eastern Millworks benefits by having dedicated, qualified graduates to fill important positions that have been hard to fill, and those engineers enable the company to grow. The college benefits from enrollments in a program that serves students and their families with meaningful outcomes. The comprehensive community college furthers economic expansion, one business at a time.

Expanding the Pathway

HCCC has one of the highest performing nursing schools in New Jersey. Our graduates’ National Council Licensure Examination scores consistently rank at the top of the chart. An exceptional staff and faculty in the Nursing and Health Sciences Division continually strive for excellence.

Yet, what we hear repeatedly, especially from our hospital partners, is that an associate’s degree isn’t enough. If we are truly focused on making our graduates employable, we need to recognize and adapt to the reality that Jersey City Medical Center, Carepoint Health, and others in our service area increasingly require the Bachelors of Science in Nursing (BSN). There is a compelling need in our healthcare communities and we needed to find a way to meet it. The community college has direct impact on the region’s healthcare industry through its programs in nursing, radiography, health science, EMT, paramedics, exercise science, medical assistant and others. Again, we embraced a collaborative approach that required flexibility so that we could respond to an opportunity to serve our healthcare partners—who in turn serve our community.

We sustain a long partnership with New Jersey City University in Jersey City. For years we have had a successful articulation and dual-admit program that allows for a seamless transfer of HCCC’s nursing graduates into NJCU’s BSN program.

Last year, I went to NJCU with a big “ask”: Would they be willing to bring the BSN program directly to HCCC so graduates could stay in the same place at which they earned their Registered Nursing degree. We are a commuter school and students balance day care, elder care and work schedules as they seek to make a better life for themselves.

NJCU enthusiastically responded that they would be proud to expand the partnership and we recently launched the first cohort of BSN students at HCCC’s wonderful, renovated Cundari Center. The pressing workforce need is being met through a student success approach that requires partners. Our students and the College are enriched by the collaborative partnership. Health care occupies four of the 10 largest growth areas in Hudson County. How could we not bring our resources to bear on this pressing need? And as we grow our nursing enrollments, we hire additional teachers and staff to administer the program, thereby promoting economic growth in the region.

Promoting Financial Health

HCCC recently became a founding member of the Hudson County Business Consortium. We partner with the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce, the Hudson County Economic Development Corporation, the County’s Office of Business Opportunity, and New Jersey City University to provide educational opportunities that support growth and expansion within businesses that operate in the county. We also provide services that assist aspiring business owners in gaining needed skills to successfully launch their endeavors.

The community college serves as the convener of monthly meetings at which we plan course and workshop offerings, as well as events that will support businesses as they seek to gain county contracts and access funding opportunities. Importantly, the Chamber of Commerce promotes our classes through its website. We encourage business owners and their staff members to improve their accounting, planning and budgetary skills, to learn more about “set-aside funds” that the County has made available to certified businesses, and to access courses and networking that focus on business success. All of the founding partners believe that together we can fuel a thriving local economy. The consortium is an excellent model for strong workforce and business development.

Continuous Improvement

As the largest college in our county, in a city where we are surrounded by cranes and other tangible signs of development, we thought it important to launch a new Associates of Science program in Construction Management. Aligning our offerings with the region’s job openings is central to our mission. We want our graduates to be productive right here in the metropolitan area that they live in. So we have begun to have conversations with some of the largest developers in the country to enable our students to have a place to intern and land jobs. And we have initiated a new program through the HCCC Foundation that provides compensation of $2,000 to students if they want to intern with an industry partner that doesn’t have a funded program.

When student success is the goal, everything pulls together.

Beyond the job fairs that we hold to serve community members looking for the next opportunity, and beyond the advisory board that provides much-needed review of our programs and offerings, a wide range of innovative initiatives blossom at the intersection of education and economy. I’m honored to do the work of the community college as it creates opportunities for families and businesses to maintain and improve their financial health.

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