Here are stories of three community colleges that are acting entrepreneurially, undertaking exciting new ventures that will drive economic growth for their entire region. At the same time, these projects will help the colleges become more sustainable and less reliant on financial support from hard-pressed local and state governments.
Arkansas State University-Mountain Home
Arkansas State University-Mountain Home is located in north central Arkansas. A relatively young school founded just 15 years ago, ASUMH has about 1,400 students. In September, ASUMH opens the Vada Sheid Community Development Center. This 65,000-square-foot facility gives the region its first cultural and special events hub. It includes:
- A 1,600-seat auditorium, which will welcome concerts, lectures, graduations, and special events.
- The region's only convention center, which will host conferences, meetings, trade shows, training seminars, banquets and special events.
- The Trout Nature Center, which includes a Trout Hall of Fame and related educational exhibits. Mountain Home is one of the nation's best venues for trout fishing, a sport that draws thousands of visitors to the region. The school received a grant of over $822,000 from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to move this center forward.
"The convention center is going to be an economic driver for our community and for the university,” says Chancellor Ed Coulter. "This is a tourist community that is very beautiful but remote, but a lot of people come here to enjoy the wonderful lake and river. Now, people will be able to attend conventions here and then stay over and go to the lake and enjoy all of our amenities. And trout are revered in this part of the country; people are going to want to come to the Trout Nature Center.”
In addition to undertaking projects like the Vada Sheid Community Development Center, ASUHM works hard to create community partnerships that help support its sustainability. Coulter cites the school's relationships with a local hospital and the region's funeral industry as examples. "We have a wonderful regional hospital, and we provide all of their workforce training,” he says. "Each time they come to us and say they need a new skill set, we create the curriculum. We've also hooked up with the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Center in Little Rock, a major medical research part of our state; with them we have created paramedic, respiratory care and dental hygiene programs.
"We are ranked number four in the country for our program that prepares people to become a funeral director or a licensed embalmer,” he adds. "We provide all of the training on campus except the embalming. We have a wonderful partnership with area funeral homes, which allow our students to obtain the embalming experience they need to be licensed. It's a perfect example of education and business/industry working together.
"We truly have an entrepreneurial spirit in what we do,” says Coulter. "For example, we have become very active in online instruction; in the near future we will be advertising degrees and programs to military installations throughout the country. Military benefits will help soldiers pay for this so while they're serving our country, they can also prepare for their post-military careers. I truly believe we're going to become one of the key players in online instruction.”
Closer to home, ASUMH is leading a consortium of local organizations that is using an $84,000+ grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to reduce poverty in a four-county area. "We hope to create an education program that will help teach young children the importance of a college education and that they can climb out of poverty through educational opportunities,” says Carol Gresham, ASUMH's vice chancellor of Development.
Of this effort, Coulter says, "We've got to change expectations. People at poverty level somehow feel they're on a dead-end street and there is no way out. This is our attempt to say that education, setting goals in life, and realizing that you can break the cycle of poverty is the way out.”
NorthWest Arkansas Community College
About 150 miles west of Mountain Home, in Bentonville, is NorthWest Arkansas Community College. NWACC's six locations serve about 8,100 credit and 7,000 noncredit students. It also has an exciting new building opening this fall, the 40,000-square-foot Shewmaker Center for Global Business Development. The $8-million building was funded through a capital campaign that raised $16 million, including a $4-million matching grant from the Walton Family Trust. (Bentonville, of course, is the home of WalMart.)
The new center houses the school's business programs and four institutes focusing on specific areas of instruction: Entrepreneurial Studies, Retail, Sustainability, and Transportation and Logistics. A student incubator is located in the new building, with room for 18 student businesses.
According to NWACC President Becky Paneitz, because the school is located in the hometown of corporate giants like WalMart, Tyson Foods, and JB Hunt, it made sense to create institutes focused on their core businesses. "This presented the school not just with an opportunity to create educational programs based on industries that provide local jobs but also with fundraising opportunities, including naming rights to the institutes,” says Paneitz.
For example, the Sustainability Institute is named after another local firm, Stribling Packaging and Display. With WalMart taking a leadership position in the retail industry on the issue of sustainability, the Sustainability Institute and the school's newly hired sustainability coordinator take on added importance. Courses on topics such as packaging and how to cut down on an organization's waste stream will be part of this institute.
"We're also walking the talk of sustainability with a conservation program for bottles, cans, and paper,” says Paneitz. "In the last fiscal year by not putting these into the waste stream, we saved about $14,000 in waste fees.”
Another entrepreneurial undertaking of NWACC is Jenny's Café, which is operated by Culinary Arts students; it is located at an old hospital that has been turned into a center for nonprofits. "We're moving our adult ed, literacy and GED programs into that building, and we've hired a chef who was trained at the Culinary Arts Institute, who will use students to run the Café as an entrepreneurial venture for us,” says Dean of Business and Computer Information Tim Cornelius. "We also are setting up Jenny's Place Catering, and we're already getting calls about that.
"The reason this college is entrepreneurial is because of the president,” adds Cornelius. "The president has to set the tone; without his or her tone setting or allowing people to become innovative, it just won't happen.”
"One of the things I did when I came here to be innovative was to have some dollars set aside every year for innovation grants,” she says, "Faculty or staff members receive up to $2,000 for a grant that ties to our mission. The idea has to be out of the box; it can't be ‘buy equipment for my lab.' Our study abroad and honors program grew out of this, and now we have those programs institutionalized. That gives people a chance to think out of the box; we give awards twice a year. The other thing we did was to hire people that understand what entrepreneurship means and how to think entrepreneurially about what we do.”
Kirkwood Community College
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, impressive entrepreneurial endeavors are afoot at Kirkwood Community College. The college's 12 campuses serve nearly 25,000 students in credit courses; another 41,000 people participate in continuing education and training programs. Kirkwood is in the center of a region still recovering from the devastation of massive flooding in 2008. The college has taken a leadership role in working on a regional plan for recovery and growth.
"Between this natural disaster and the recession, we've had a significant 1-2 punch that we're trying to come out of,” says Executive Vice President of Continuing Education and Workforce Development Dee Baird. "For the last 16 months, the college has organized, facilitated and coordinated the Corridor Business Alliance, which is made up of 12 organizations focused on entrepreneurial development, small business development and working more collaboratively on a regional level.”
Alliance meetings have taken place at Kirkwood Center, the college's conference center, turning the college into a regional hub for economic development. This month, the Hotel at Kirkwood Center opens, giving the college yet another attractive facility that will aid in regional economic development at the same time it provides invaluable training for students and an economic engine for the college itself.
The $32-million, 107,291-square-foot luxury hotel has 71 rooms and is the largest and most comprehensive teaching hotel at a community college in the U.S. It is staffed by professional management and lead staff assisted by students from Kirkwood's Culinary, Culinary Assistant, Bakery, Hotel/Motel Management and Restaurant Management programs. "What the hotel will do is give students a first-class, hands-on learning experience; they will be integrated into every part of its operation,” says President Mick Starcevich. "The learning experience will be phenomenal. But besides that, the hotel provides another revenue source; we can take those dollars and put them towards our general fund. That will help us keep our tuition the lowest in the state.”
Another example of entrepreneurship at Kirkwood is the college's Iowa Equestrian Center. "The center feeds our Equine Science program,” says Starcevich. "It's booked for business 48 weekends of the year. It has turned into a profit center since opening in 2000 and we're looking to enlarge it.
"Our vision is to invent, develop and deliver learning solutions for the 21st century,” says Starcevich.
"When you work as an organization with that type of vision, it really gives you a large platform to think about how you come up with learning solutions through creative processes. It's that type of thinking that leads to entrepreneurial solutions such as the Hotel at Kirkwood Center and the Iowa Equestrian Center.”