Can philanthropy bring colleges and companies together?

Strada Education Network awarded $4M in grants for partnerships between community colleges and employers. We talked with Courtney McBeth, SVP, about the difficulty of forging such partnerships and what the foundation hopes to learn.

Strada Education Network recently announced $4 million in grants for 11 partnerships between community colleges and employers—the foundation’s first major investment in the two-year college sector.

A common thread in the selected partnerships is a demonstrated commitment by the employers to collaborate with community colleges to build a strong workforce, says Courtney McBeth, senior vice president and chief program officer at Strada.

The grants, which are for two years and up to $400,000, are designed to strengthen colleges’ ties with employers and to provide an opportunity for both sides of the partnerships to gain clarity on the roles they play, their relationship, and the associated return on investment.

We talked with McBeth about the foundation’s focus on college-employer partnerships in these grants and what they hope to learn.

Are there common threads in the approaches of these colleges? Are they ahead of the curve in their work with employers?
Courtney McBeth

A: One of the biggest common threads is that these partnerships demonstrate a commitment from employers to collaborate with the institution in building a strong workforce. Community colleges have done great work for years in being responsive to the needs of employers and the local workforce. What is particularly exciting about these partnerships is that these employers are bringing their own resources and expertise to respond to the needs of students and the broader community in order to fill critical workforce gaps. The employers are looking to community colleges as a key partner and source of talent. In turn, employers are committing resources to support students with tuition wraparound support and equipment, expertise to enhance curriculum and instruction, internships and apprenticeships, and hiring priority and commitments.

As we know, strengthening connections between education and work is a big priority for institutions across the postsecondary landscape, not just community colleges. Employer alignment and engagement is critical in this work. These partnerships will offer many examples and insights to other institutions who might be just beginning to collaborate with employers in similar ways.

How do you hope the grants will be used to strengthen the colleges’ ties with employers?

A: We hope these grants will help strengthen colleges’ ties with employers by providing a dedicated space and process for employers and colleges to collaborate and problem solve together. These grants provide an opportunity for the college and employer to gain clarity on the roles they play, their relationship, and the associated ROI.

Over the course of the two-year grant, these projects will go through multiple phases, from developing and expanding programs to engaging and supporting students. We hope this grant funding makes it easier for colleges and their employer partners to dedicate the time and efforts to assess how things are going, make changes when needed, and work together to ensure the best experience and outcomes for students. Ultimately, we hope the grants provide the field with lessons learned on how to more closely connect with employers, not just in alignment, but in meeting the needs of the college, the student, and the employer.

What are some specific things you hope to learn from these programs? And what do you expect colleges and employers will learn from each other through the community of practice?

A: While our focus will be doing what we can to support the institutions and employers working together, we do have a few topics we’ll be keeping our eyes on in terms of the insights we can learn, particularly around the areas of: student experience and outcomes; employer commitments and perspective; and how partnerships evolve over time. We are particularly interested in better understanding and elevating the student perspective as well as tracking student outcomes through and beyond completion of the credential.

We hope that institutions and employers participating in the community of practice have the chance to share what’s working, as well as the challenges they may have run into, and to learn from approaches or practices other partnerships have tried. The community of practice will provide a unique chance for the community colleges and employers to learn from a variety of different approaches, industries, and geographies across the country. We hope this helps to enrich and enhance the partnerships and ultimately the student experience.

The White House is keen on foundations backing proposals they received for the Good Jobs Challenge and the Talent Pipeline Challenge. Do you see this being a focus for Strada and other philanthropies? 

A: There are some key elements in those challenges that were very important for us as well, such as the emphasis on building equitable pathways to employment, and bringing together multiple stakeholders and resources within a community to meet regional needs. We spent a year listening to community college leaders, employers, and students in order to better understand education and workforce needs coming out of the pandemic. It’s been very exciting to see that alignment at the federal level with the focus areas that have been coming up in our own research and conversations with the field.

Continuing to explore how philanthropic and government funding can better coordinate and align to support building America’s talent pipeline and ensuring global competitiveness is an area of great promise.

Editor’s note: Strada Education Network has been a financial supporter of Work Shift. Read more about our policy on transparency and editorial independence here.

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