How one college program guarantees a job for its grads

Kristin Tyndall, editorKristin Tyndall, editor

It's no secret that students and families are growing increasingly focused on the return they can get from their investment in higher education.

Many of today's students measure that return by their employment outcomes. If they achieve their goals in the job market, they feel the cost of tuition was worth it. If they don't, they don't.

Employer partnerships are a popular idea for solving these challenges, in addition to closing skills gaps, spurring local economies, alleviating the student debt crisis, and more.

One unique and successful example of a partnership with local employers is the Missouri Innovation Campus at the University of Central Missouri (UCM).

The CEO of a local green energy company, who happened to be a UCM alum, approached the institution a few years ago and proposed the partnership. The CEO hoped the partnership could create a pipeline of qualified employees for his company, which was having trouble finding local candidates with the right skills. To build the partnership, UCM coordinated with the city government, a local community college, and several local employers.

How 3 institutions structure their employer partnerships

Program officials identify prospective students for the program as early as 9th grade, assign them an industry mentor, and recruit them to a dual enrollment program. During the summer following their junior year of high school, students begin a paid internship that continues (with varying time commitments) for the rest of their tenure in the program. When the students graduate high school, they earn an associate degree at the same time.

Then, participating students study for two more years at UCM. The institution designed specialized general education classes to help accelerate student progress. At the end of the program, students earn a bachelor's degree in one of four academic programs.

Graduates of the program are guaranteed a job with one of the local employer partners. The average starting salary is around $60,000.

Some parents of the first participants cried when officials invited their children to the program, UCM President Charles Ambrose told EAB. The program has grown from 17 initial participants to 125 today, and officials plan to keep growing.

The Innovation Campus has received positive feedback from employers, students—and even the state's governor, who granted UCM roughly $500,000 to help fund the program and set aside an additional $10 million to launch similar programs across Missouri.

How two universities identify likely employer partners

Ambrose shares that one key to the partnership has been understanding the skill needs of local employers and aligning those to the curriculum. UCM worked with Cerner, the primary local employer, in 2011 to identify desired competencies and outcomes. Now, UCM can embed those competencies into the program so that students start training in them from the very beginning of their Innovation Campus journey.

Employers tell UCM they love the program partially because they get a stable pipeline of well-prepared employees; Cerner aims to hire around 3,000 people per year. Employers also appreciate that they can save on onboarding expenses. Whereas they previously needed 23 weeks to train a recent grad up to full productivity, they've been able to cut that time in half.

Ambrose acknowledges that not every college will be able to start a similar program immediately. "We were fortunate to have all the elements to do something extraordinary," he says.

But he's proud of how the Innovation Campus has been able to help local students and families, overcoming barriers to access, success, and employment all at once. "Underrepresented, underprepared, and under-resourced students are our future," he says.

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