• Join your peers at SSTI's 2024 Annual Conference!

    Join us December 10-12 in Arizona to connect with and learn from your peers working around the country to strengthen their regional innovation economies. Visit ssticonference.org for more information and to register today.

  • Become an SSTI Member

    As the most comprehensive resource available for those involved in technology-based economic development, SSTI offers the services that are needed to help build tech-based economies.  Learn more about membership...

  • Subscribe to the SSTI Weekly Digest

    Each week, the SSTI Weekly Digest delivers the latest breaking news and expert analysis of critical issues affecting the tech-based economic development community. Subscribe today!

Pandemic-era federal funding encouraged community colleges to have greater involvement in regional economic development

February 22, 2024
By: Michele Hujber

The recent pandemic and the government's response may have catapulted community colleges toward deeper participation in economic development. “Community colleges have been interested and involved in economic development for decades,” said Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. "That's part of their core mission. But what is different now is that there's a lot more federal money on the table through the CHIPS Act and the (Bipartisan) Infrastructure (Law). Community colleges are entrepreneurial, and they will take advantage of those resources to the extent they're available."

Rebecca Corbin, president and CEO of the National Association of Community Colleges for Entrepreneurship (NACCE), agrees that federal funding is proving to be a catalyst for community colleges. She observed that with the pandemic-era federal funding, they are engaging in deeper collaborations with the surrounding innovation ecosystem. “From my perspective, since the CHIPS Act has come into play, we've seen some great examples of community colleges (helping to build ecosystems).”

Deeper collaborations move beyond basic levels where “employer partners provide informal feedback via employer advisory committees,” to “higher levels of business support where colleges work with employers to provide customized training to their workers; share or donate equipment and facilities; codevelop curricula and materials; or provide instructional support, equipment, and facilities,” as outlined in a recent research paper from Michelle Van Noy, director of the Education and Employment Research Center at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers.

Corbin cited Wake Technical Community College (Wake Tech) in North Carolina, Lorain County Community College in Ohio, and Ivy Tech Community College (Ivy Tech) in Indiana as good examples of community colleges that have intensified their role in the local ecosystems.

"(Wake Tech is) leaning into economic development in terms of partnering with chambers working on private philanthropy to stand up state-of-the-art programs," she said. "That's also the case at Lorraine County Community College; they've done some excellent work in that area, and it spans the gamut. … (At) the Ivy Tech system in Indiana, they're doing a lot with cyber security, which … spills over to other programs in STEM."

The nature of the funding may also encourage community colleges and other recipients to reach out more to other ecosystem players. Brock pointed out that some federal money directly goes to employers, state agencies, or elsewhere, forcing others in the region to seek out partners they may not have connected with otherwise.

“Community colleges have to figure out where the funding lies and what kind of partnerships they need to establish to take advantage of those funds and to provide the right kind of training that's most in demand,” Brock said. “They've been doing that, but maybe there's more opportunity now.”

If the pandemic-era federal funding drives community colleges to be more engaged in economic development activities, what happens when the funding runs out? Corbin emphasizes that community colleges should use government funding to catalyze ongoing collaborations.

"That funding will not be around forever," Corbin said. "Nor should it be. It was designed to jump-start the economy, and then it's up to the recipients and the ecosystem to figure out ways to keep it."

Corbin noted that groups that come together to prepare a grant proposal sometimes work together in the future, whether they win the grant or not. She mentioned a collaboration led by the University of Memphis, in which NAACE participated, that pursued an NSF Integrity Grant. They did not win the grant, which would have funded their project to research food deserts in the Delta region, but nonetheless, the group is still looking at opportunities to work together, amplify their findings of solutions to the problem, and share those solutions with other regions. "And I've seen that time and time again with government grants," Corbin said.

community college, economic development