Community colleges redefine town-gown

Close ties to surrounding communities are a long-standing tradition, but in today’s economic climate the pressure is on to serve residents and demonstrate value
By: | Issue: October, 2014
September 24, 2014

Thom Chesney, president of Brookhaven College, often meets donors who have never taken a course at his community college in northern Dallas, nor had children who attended the school. Instead, they have a different type of connection to the college: They simply enjoy walking along the trails crisscrossing the campus.

“They give a gift to a scholarship fund because they’ve used our trails for 10 years. They start every morning by walking the trail,” Chesney says. “You don’t get that if you don’t build a trail or if you don’t have community engagement as part of your mission.”

A one-mile path running through the 195-acre campus is more than a physical link to the surrounding suburb of Farmers Branch. It is one of many ways the college engages with the community beyond its classrooms, from offering traveling Broadway shows to hosting the annual Susan G. Komen Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day, a fundraising walk for breast cancer.

Since explosive growth in the 1960s, the mission of the community college has expanded to include spurring economic development, serving as a cultural center and improving the quality of life for the surrounding community. While positive town-gown relations have long been pivotal for these institutions, the decline in state funding across the country has increased the pressure to demonstrate value to the public.

“There’s this competition among all of higher education for limited resources,” says Michael T. Miller, senior associate dean in the College of Education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “That forces community colleges to do different things to protect the revenue that they have, to show there’s great value for that money.”

Here’s how the redefining of town-gown has looked at several community colleges.

Role of the rural college

If you live in the northwest corner of Kansas, you might attend a high school graduation party or a wedding reception in the student union of Colby Community College, which serves a sprawling 14-county area. You might also hear a visiting brass band or watch an African dance troupe there.

The power of PR

Maintaining positive town-gown relations requires community colleges to promote themselves in a way that generates public support for their programs. Strategic public relations are even more critical when community colleges propose projects that may affect surrounding neighborhoods.

“When we do a project like a new hike and bike trail, we bring the community in immediately and tell them so it doesn’t come as a shock to them,” says Thom Chesney, president of Brookhaven College in Texas. “The story that then gets told is not one of not knowing but the story that we tell.”

Union County College recently learned that lesson when it proposed a $1.4 million athletic field for its campus in Cranford, N.J. Located in a residential neighborhood that is prone to flooding, the college designed the fields with an underground drainage and septic system that would control any runoff from campus.

Although the college presented its plan to the township engineer and discussed it at its own board of trustees meetings, neighborhood residents who heard about the project stirred up opposition last spring, claiming that it would exacerbate flooding. Forced to distribute fliers responding to the residents’ charges, the college was unable to convince opponents that the athletic field would reduce the flooding problem.

“If we had gotten ahead of this and started an information campaign immediately to explain that it was really flood remediation with a field on it, that would have at least put the discussion more in line with reality,” said Stephen Nacco, vice president of administrative services. “But once they had that misperception that was the exact opposite of reality—once that seed got planted—we couldn’t change it.”

To resolve the dispute, the college abandoned the plan and decided to build the athletic field at a county park in Clark, about 15 minutes away from campus. At the same time, officials are working to mend relations with the community by offering space for civic groups to hold events at no charge and by meeting with local elected officials.

“You have to be committed to being a good neighbor, but you also have to know what it is that’s going to cause any kind of stress with your neighbors,” Nacco says. “That’s just a regular old PR lesson—get out in front of any kind of problem. Because once fear hits, you can argue until you’re blue in the face, but you won’t be able to change their minds.”

In rural areas, community colleges function as community centers, offering many of the area’s educational, social, cultural and civic events. Unlike their urban peers, these colleges often serve as a focal point for public life.

“The rural community colleges have a more important role in integrating themselves into the community,” says Stephen Vacik, president of Colby Community College. “The folks who work here live in this community and are very much leaders in civic organizations, church organizations and city government. As a result, we’re more invested in terms of how we can make our community that much better.”

Rural colleges partner with local governments on projects that may not be possible without that support. In 2010, Yakima Valley Community College in southern Washington state partnered to build a new, larger library with the city of Grandview, home of one of its two campuses.

The 12,150-square-foot library, equipped with several banks of computers, serves both community college students and city residents. Together, the college and the city raised $3 million for the project, while a $2 million state grant covered the remaining cost.

The library showcased the college’s commitment to the city—and introduced campus life to students from the nearby high school. “Kids walking by will stop in at the library and see themselves on a college campus,” says Teresa Holland, Yakima Valley’s vice president for administrative services. “They’ll see themselves as not being afraid of coming to a community college.”

Job training for community growth

With the need for high-tech employees intensifying in a digital world, community colleges are stepping up to provide the training graduates need to compete in the job market. That was why Cape Cod Community College officials approached a group of regional startup companies that were having difficulty finding skilled workers.

The result is a new associate’s degree in engineering to be offered at the college sometime next year.

“We always have open positions, and one of the difficult parts is not only finding people to fill the positions, but keeping them here,” says Bob Melvin, vice president of engineering at Teledyne Marine Systems, one of the companies that has been working with the college. “Having a connection to the local community college really helps in retaining people.”

The associate’s degree in engineering is among a handful of initiatives the college has launched in response to economic needs. Another example: After a focus group predicted a decade ago that 670 jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy would become available in the Cape Cod area, the college created three certificate programs in photovoltaic, thermal and wind technology to train students to work in the growing renewable energy industry.

Job-training partnerships can also involve solving a problem the entire community is facing. Yakima Valley Community College is nestled in one of the fastest-wine growing regions in Washington state. Officials created associate degrees in viticulture and enology in 2007. They also opened a teaching winery and two winery incubators—startups that employ students as they learn the profession.

“We had all these wineries that were starting to grow and they didn’t have a labor force that they could hire,” Holland says. “Making wine is a science and they needed people in the winery who knew about the yeast, the fermentation and the science of making the wine.”

Economic development projects

Community colleges are increasingly committing themselves to economic development off campus. Tompkins Cortland Community College, in Dryden, N.Y., earlier this year joined a partnership to create a business incubator in downtown Ithaca, 20 minutes west of its campus.

The college’s role in the project is to provide training in business services—such as marketing or licensing—to startup companies. Classes will be offered at either at the 9,000-square-foot incubator or the college’s extension center downtown. The other two partners in the project, Cornell University and Ithaca College, will provide coaching from experienced entrepreneurs and introductions to venture capitalists.

“This is an example of how we connect with emerging needs and initiatives in the community where there’s an obvious and logical link for a community college role,” says Carl Haynes, president of Tompkins Cortland.

The college is also building a 17,000-square-foot culinary center with a full-service restaurant, a demonstration kitchen, a wine tasting room and event space, all located on the ground floor of a parking garage downtown. Along with 90 acres of land that will be farmed next to the college, the center is part of a new farm-to-bistro initiative offering associate’s degrees in culinary arts, sustainable farming and food systems.

The project ties into the Finger Lakes region’s tourism industry while capitalizing on the growing farm-to-table movement. “People want to think they can either purchase or consume food that is locally produced,” Haynes says. “We’re right there with that trend and generating some economic development. We’re creating jobs.”

Sherrie Negrea is an Ithaca, N.Y.-based writer.