By Ann Collett
Your class today starts with a pop quiz:
What does it mean to align economic development and higher education?
A. Higher education programs adapt to the needs of target industries
B. Educators and economic developers share industry relationships and co-market
C. Educators and economic developers jointly commit resources to improving their community
D. All of the above
E. None of the above
If you answered “D, All of the Above,” congratulations! You are correct.
In our travels across the country, we hear communities both large and small say that they are hungry for ways to advance relationships between industry and higher education. Our answer to them is that alignment starts a commitment to share research, relationships, and resources with each other.
Do you have an in-depth inventory of your higher education assets and graduate output? Do you know what specific skillsets local industry needs today and in the future? Can you quantify your community’s skills gaps?
Conversations about alignment must begin with a shared foundation of information. Educators and economic developers should co-invest in research that informs conversations about alignment.
Understand your higher education assets inside and out. Make curriculum and programming adjustments to fill skills shortages. Know which skills are in surplus, and market those pools of talent to industry.
Update research annually and make course corrections along the way. Keep marketing content fresh. Report progress on a regular basis to encourage continued collaboration.
Successful communities are diligent about building relationships between education, industry, and economic development.
How do they do it? They begin at home. Through an open dialogue, educators, executives, and economic developers work together to create opportunities and address issues. They see their own success connected to the success of the other parties, which drives them to collaborate.
(Tip: For best results, engage the highest-level leadership – the presidents of colleges and universities, businesses, and economic development organizations. While they might not be involved in day-to-day alignment activities, gaining their buy-in is critical.)
External relationships should also be shared. Do you know which companies have relationships with your higher education institutions? Do educators participate in economic development marketing missions and prospect visits? Compare lists of companies with relationships at the university (e.g., sponsored research, recruiting, gifting, alumni) with lists of economic development targets and prospects. For companies with multiple relationships on the lists, reach out to them about expanding their presence in the community and on-campus.
Share resources and brainpower to collectively improve your community and higher education.
There are numerous ways to do this. For example, plan the physical location of new higher education facilities in places that will anchor additional community development. The placement of sports complexes, R&D centers, student housing, and academic buildings can trigger redevelopment and investment in the surrounding area.
Invite educators to help solve local problems. For example, ask marketing department faculty to help improve the community’s brand identity, public policy faculty to weigh in on local business climate issues, and engineering faculty to participate in planning exercises.
Advocate for each other as well. Economic development organizations’ legislative agendas should support higher education. College and university leaders should get behind initiatives to make their community a more competitive place for business, including advocating for business climate improvements at the local and state levels.