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A $12-Billion Partnership Opportunity?

I’ve been monitoring what appears to be a steady increase in the number, scope, and creativity of partnerships between associations/nonprofits and academia in the past five years. In some cases, the alliances aim to provide more meat and accessibility to association certifications; others want to co-brand their education programs with the prestige of universities or research institutions. Still more are trying to pilot new relationships and share both risk and resources with academics of similar mindset and goals.

While aligning with the likes of Penn State University and the University of Michigan is wonderful for some associations, I’ve seen far fewer partnerships with community colleges, despite their massive jump in popularity in recent years. After the announcement this week of President Obama’s new American Graduation Initiative, however, it may be just the right time for that to change.

The underlying goal of this $12-billion, 10-year investment is to educate, retrain, and graduate five million adults and young adults with “the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future,” say Obama. Federal research has already estimated that “one-third of the fastest-growing occupations will require an associate's degree or a postsecondary vocational certificate.”

Obama’s announcement names community colleges as a primary vehicle toward accomplishing such a goal, noting the colleges “could build partnerships with businesses and the workforce investment system to create career pathways where workers can earn new credentials and promotions step-by-step, worksite education programs [that] build basic skills,” and internships and job placements that are “curriculum-coordinated.”

Couldn’t you envision how associations might help with these three areas? Professional and trade organizations know first-hand what skills and knowledge are needed to build the most successful careers within their sectors; why not offer to help shape the new curricula that must emerge? Why not offer as part of students’ coursework, or even as a graduation requirement, the new-economy-oriented professional certifications already developed (or underway) by an association? That’s what the National Association of Home Builders and Perdue University have done with NAHB’s Green Builder certification, for instance.

And couldn’t you see how associations and a community college could jointly target the largest companies in their fields to host onsite training of employees, as continuing education credit or for certification points?

And what of internships and job placements? Might associations find a new role as a clearinghouse for internships in their fields, a one-stop-shop for community college students and others seeking a foothold in the sector? A possible author of internship best practices designed to create positive learning experiences that build genuine enthusiasm in students and retrained adults for a career in that field or trade?

Finally, the new initiative also enables development of an “online skills laboratory” that relies on educational software to help “students learn more in less time than they would with traditional classroom instruction alone” and to extend “learning opportunities to rural areas or working adults who need to fit their coursework around families and jobs.” Obama envisions “open online courses … developed by teams of experts in content knowledge, pedagogy, and technology and made available for modification, adaptation, and sharing.” Government agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor, would work with each other and others to develop such courses and “rigorously analyze” the quality of their results as well.

Certainly associations—so many of which are concerned about workforce shortages, weakening skills, and global economic competition—could benefit from piloting some trial partnerships around this goal. Haven’t we spent the last decade refining our own online coursework? Don’t we already have the expertise and knowledge—or the ability to develop it--that this nation’s workforce needs via such education?

The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) and its education allies are understandably ecstatic about the initiative. But I think that a closer examination and some creative thought about how this effort could help address serious concerns by a much wider range of associations could lead to some A-plus opportunities.



Community colleges often have well-developed infrastructure for adult education that can be used for credentialing classes and continuing ed.

The prestige of a well-known academic institution may appeal to some associations, but members are often more interested in accessible, affordable, educational opportunities that provide valuable content.

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