The Arizona Advanced Manufacturing Institute (AzAMI) is still a year away from the end of the U.S. Labor Department grant that expanded the program. But already, AzAMI Executive Director Leah Palmer at Mesa Community College (MCC) in Mesa, Arizona, is fielding calls from companies that have hired her students through the institute.
“Are you OK?” she says they ask her. And more importantly: “Are you going to be around?”
It’s a very good question. As state funding dwindles and colleges strive to advance their student success and completion agendas, grants have become a primary way to institute new, innovative programs. But those time-limited grants require college leaders to walk a fine line between the lure of grant funding and the challenge of maintaining those programs after grants expire.
Some colleges are finding ways to sustain programs past the sunset of their grants. MCC, for instance, has approved a sustainability plan for AzAMI and submitted it to leaders at Maricopa Community Colleges, of which it is a part. The question is how much of AzAMI’s proposed $300,000-per-year operating budget will come from the college and how much will come from the district.
For AzAMI and all the other grant-funded programs at community colleges, stakes are high.
“If this [partnership with industry] stops, you will not get it back,” Palmer says. “You can’t stop services and expect [partners] to come back.”
AzAMI could be just about any large, grant-funded initiative. But it’s also a good example of how to build a grant-funded program into a college and move the college, the community and the industry forward.
The lure of grants
If anyone knows the lure of millions of dollars in grants, it’s Eunice Bellinger, president of BridgeValley Community and Technical College in West Virginia. She has served in administrative roles at community colleges since 2005 and taught for 23 years before that. When it comes to grants, she placed them at a level of high importance: a seven out of 10, she says.
“Because funding is so tight these days, we’re looking more and more to grant funding,” says Bellinger, who assumed the presidency at the college this summer. “But the problem is, how do you sustain it?”
It’s the catch-22 of community college funding, says Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the nonprofit Century Foundation. Kahlenberg has studied higher education funding, and what he’s found won’t surprise anyone in college leadership. In recent years, public community colleges received an average of $13,000 per student. Meanwhile, public four-year institutions spent about $37,000 per student, and private universities spent a whopping $68,000 per student.
“The irony is that most educators would acknowledge that first-generation college students, low-income students, students who haven’t received adequate preparation at the high school level all deserve to have more spent on their education,” he says. “Grant programs can try to make up some of the difference, but there’s enough of a chasm in public funding for community colleges versus four-year institutions that it can’t fully be made up by private money.”
This leaves college leaders to make tough decisions. Bellinger says that her approach has been to be thoughtful about the grants she takes on in the first place, seeking out grants that dovetail with programs that are already a part of the college — that is, not launching a bunch of new programs that won’t integrate into her systems. Then, she and her team work hard to replace current grants with new ones. This is easier to do when the grants are aimed at a specific population — say, veterans. It requires jumping through a lot of hoops, she says, but it can be done.
She also tries to steer away from grants designed to bring on new staff or faculty. Not only do such grants put people’s livelihoods at stake, she says, but it’s not a sustainable way to grow staff in the long run. Instead, she prefers to use smaller grants to fund programs that faculty propose — professional development programs, for instance, or innovations in instruction that faculty propose. That way, faculty are invested in the college’s growth and loyal to the institution.
Finally, she says, the goal is to avoid taking on a new grant if you don’t also plan to sustain it.
“I have been at colleges where turnover of personnel and changes in services to students have been ridiculous, because you constantly have people coming on and off of programs funded by grants,” Bellinger says. “It really becomes, to my mind, irresponsible to enter into grants and forget they need to be sustained afterwards.”
Three steps to sustainability
When MCC got the $2.5 million, three-year Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant, funded by the U.S. Labor Department, in October 2013, Palmer knew she’d have to act fast to make this program so essential to the college that leaders would want to keep it around after the grant expired.
Her strategy was three-fold: Build off of your strengths, get active buy-in from college leadership and integrate yourself into the institution. Put together, these three approaches counter the main problem with grant-funded programs, she says: namely, that they’re often siloed away from the main mission of the college and therefore easy to relinquish when the grant expires.
“The more you make yourself part of the fabric of the institution, the harder it is for an institution to think of letting you go,” Palmer says.
The first step was to build off the college’s strengths. MCC already had a manufacturing program and, importantly, an institutional knowledge base in the form of faculty, who could guide the construction of curriculum along with intensive conversations with industry about what they needed.
Then, she turned to her college’s leadership. She set up a meeting with MCC President Shouan Pan, now chancellor of the Seattle Colleges, and his cabinet.
“We need you at the top, not just as a signatory of the grant, but we need your leadership out in front,” she told Pan. “We need people to know it’s being supported from the top down, that this is not a unique, special program apart from the college.”
Pan says he readily signed on. The grant and program fit his philosophy on grant funding, that grant funding shouldn’t be used for operations, but used instead to “stimulate innovation and extend successful programs.”
Plus, it was an opportunity to meet the college’s mission not just to help students transfer to four-year institutions, but also to prepare students for jobs and to help them upgrade their skills.
“It would have been foolish to turn the money down,” he says. “But more importantly, it would help us address a community need and expand an existing program.”
But there was one hurdle: to bring Palmer on as the head of the program, which seemed like the right fit, Pan says, she’d have to move from a position with more permanent funding to this grant-funded position.
She was willing to take the risk.