NEW ORLEANS – With state funding for community colleges in Ohio entirely based on performance, one would expect the colleges to be fiercely competitive with one another.
“In order for Lakeland to receive a higher proportion of state funding, we have to take away a portion from someone else. That does not exactly set you up for collaboration,” said Morris Beverage, Jr., president of Lakeland Community College.
But if the other community colleges are successful, “that bodes well for Lakeland,” Beverage said. That core principal led four colleges in northeastern Ohio to collaborate with the goal of promoting student success.
Beverage, along with the presidents of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), Lorain County Community College and Stark State College, described their partnership at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual convention.
“The spark that caused this to come about” was a comment by the then-president of the University of Akron that cast the community colleges in a negative light. That comment, Beverage said later, was about how the university was offering better general education courses at half the price charged by the community colleges.
Para Jones, the president of Stark State, called the other presidents and by the end of the day, they issued a press release – and the partnership was born.
“We believe this arrangement has to be a long-term one,” said Alex Johnson, president of Tri-C.
“We have a lot of students who benefit from the power and value of our institutions,” Johnson said, noting that the four colleges serve a similar population, including many students of color and economically disadvantaged.
Working together on many levels
Over the past three years, the four institutions “have built on a culture of working together, not only at the presidential level, but at the provost, chief academic officer and faculty levels,” said Marcia Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College.
Faculty are working on sharing curricula, Ballinger said, and the colleges are also engaged in several regional partnerships, including a collaboration of over 90 employers called RAPID (Regionally Aligned Priorities in Development Skills) and NEOVETS, an organization that connects military families with resources in northeastern Ohio.
The college partnership doesn’t have an official name or formal structure. But the colleges’ marketing staff worked together on a public relations campaign, called Smart Path Forward, to help the public understand that “it’s not about competition, that we’re rising above that,” Ballinger said.
The message to the public, she said, is that “whatever college you want to go to, our colleges are the smartest route forward to take you to a four-year college or a job with the smartest return on the investment.”
The central theme, Jones said, is “it isn’t about separate institutions; it’s about the community and the needs of the students.”
Johnson noted how proud he was when driving through town he saw a billboard congratulating the graduates of all four community colleges.
“That illustrates the great relationship we have,” he said.