Chapter 4: Higher Educational Relevancy: Aligning Programs, Economic Development, and Outreach to Community Needs and Aspirations

by Kristin Sobolik, Ph.D.

Posted on November 14, 2022

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Higher education is in crisis with decreasing public opinion on the need for a college education, increased demands for expanded services with immediate and tangible outcomes, and rising costs. Transcendent institutions are those that align academic programs, economic growth and development, and research and outreach with community needs and aspirations. This involves a sea change in the historical higher educational model, with its focus on the institution, to one where the institution adapts to the rapidly changing economic and social environment with accountability to and collaboration with students, prospective employers, and the community (Ambrose and Wankel 2020).

Higher education is in crisis with decreasing public opinion on the need for a college education, increased demands for expanded services with immediate and tangible outcomes, and rising costs. Transcendent institutions are those that align academic programs, economic growth and development, and research and outreach with community needs and aspirations. This involves a sea change in the historical higher educational model, with its focus on the institution, to one where the institution adapts to the rapidly changing economic and social environment with accountability to and collaboration with students, prospective employers, and the community (Ambrose and Wankel 2020).

Economic and community context is key to effective educational transformation; what is effective in one institution might not be at another. The physical and intellectual infrastructure of urban universities must support the revitalization and economic shifts of the nation’s metropolitan centers. Many urban universities are anchor institutions that provide vital academic services, programs, research, and solutions, and the urban campus must work to strengthen communities by addressing complex economic and social concerns while focusing on quality of life issues for a broad cross-section of residents (Sladek 2019).

The University of Missouri–St. Louis (UMSL) is a tier-one public research university in one of the nation’s oldest industrial cities. What was once a bustling center of commerce along the mighty Mississippi River, St. Louis shifted from being one of the nation’s leading manufacturing centers, of everything from shoes to steel, to becoming a finance industry hub and a center of geospatial sciences, agricultural innovation and biotechnology, and health care services and research. This shift, while taking decades to evolve, has developed pockets of wealth, a smaller middle class, and an often-uncertain path for social mobility and inclusive prosperity.

Meeting the knowledge needs of the St. Louis community, our corporations and industry are the building blocks that will shape our future.  

By connecting community-based research designed to provide data-driven solutions, urban universities are well positioned to support local governments, the non-profit sector, and the business ecosystem as they address multifaceted social problems, such as the physical and mental health of children and adults, as well as community access to economic development and equitable growth, and champion inclusive prosperity—and do this while increasing student success through centers of excellence in learning and workforce development. From our education to research to business operations, aligning with community needs strengthens the overall health and relevancy of the institution while increasing its important role as an anchor and driver of regional growth and development.

UMSL has been very intentional in recent years to serve as an agile institution capable of meeting the needs of students, researchers, industry, and community. Our number one focus has been to build a robust, engaged, and embedded institution consistently listening to, digesting feedback from, and developing mutually beneficial goals with the stakeholders we serve. Secondly, we consciously apply and align the full set of university assets and expertise in education, research, operations and land holdings, and civic leadership in partnership with community and industry to increase access to opportunity, quality of life, and innovation.

In action, our first area of focus requires a commitment to two-way engagement of stakeholders in university governance and community forums and focus groups, as well as university administration, faculty, staff, and student engagement on boards, coalitions, and civic initiatives.

In the area of governance, the Chancellor’s Council, an advisory body to the Chancellor, has been restructured to include a focus on academic relevancy and economic development and corporate engagement. Additionally, the colleges and university departments engage industry leaders within their own leadership councils to advise on the development of curriculum and programs, applied research, and professional student experiences.

Community engagement is a priority, building off a rich history of outreach. The university leadership actively engages with municipal town hall meetings and chancellor community gatherings, and every two years UMSL conducts focus groups and listening sessions with residents, government officials, and businesses from surrounding communities. UMSL provides applied teaching and research professional development for faculty, offering training in areas such as community-based participatory research and service learning.

As an active member of the leading St. Louis civic and economic development organization, Greater St. Louis, Inc., UMSL is working with regional partners to move St. Louis forward in job creation and growth while targeting inclusive economic development goals as part of the STL 2030 Jobs Plan (2020).

It is critical to foster a culture of engaged, applied practice across the institution so faculty, staff, and administrative leaders are ready and eager to work with partners in ways that are relevant and mutually beneficial for our community. Offering training in areas such as community-based participatory research and service learning and mini-grant opportunities focused on community-based projects provides faculty a chance to learn about and engage in public impact scholarship, teaching, and service that moves fields of practice forward and meets the needs of communities.

The second area of focus guides the delivery of the relevant impact. Building an engaged, embedded, and listening institution helps ensure our decision making and design of programs and economic development initiatives are rooted in the needs and goals of those we serve. To move those insights into tangible and relevant impact, the second principal area of focus, urban universities need to increase our capacity to quickly braid and align our assets and expertise in new ways to strengthen communities and inclusive prosperity.

By aligning our institutions’ programming and economic development with community needs and goals, universities can meet people where they are in the community and create more pathways to engage with the university online, on campus, and in the community. Through consistent deep listening and engagement and intentionality in our work to center access and success, consciously leverage the whole institution’s assets and expertise, and build internal structures in leadership and the institution to elevate and coordinate across programming and economic development, higher education can build a more sustainable and relevant future.

For example, listening sessions indicated that community residents needed better wages and core industry businesses needed larger workforce pipelines. To address these issues, UMSL employed several vehicles designed to explore educational access pathways alongside corporate partners to meet the demand of regional industry through the creation of academic programs and new certifications. Through these discussions, UMSL began work to adapt its educational offerings, identifying opportunities for shorter stackable credentials in the region’s advanced industry clusters, such as cybersecurity, computer technology, supply chain, and biotechnology, with an eye toward future employment.

As this area of focus grew, workforce integration was elevated as part of a cabinet-level position under the university’s precollegiate and student success leader creating greater visibility and coordination across leadership at the institution and leveraging UMSL’s success in college readiness, matriculation, and graduation. Furthermore, this has positioned the university to enter three direct partnerships with corporations on workforce training in the past year. Strategic partnerships with employers like Verizon and Amazon support career growth for employees, and a partnership between a technology consulting company and St. Louis Community College has led to greater access to short-term credentials and articulation agreements offering a coordinated path for high school students to accelerate their education, job placement, and ultimate attainment of a bachelor’s degree.

Intentionally leveraging the whole institution, educational programs and student support, research, operations and land holdings, and the university’s civic leadership ensures first-hand understanding of current and future needs of the community we serve.  

Our commitment to inclusive prosperity led UMSL to launch The St. Louis Anchor Action Network, an initiative that enlisted corporate and civic institutions working toward an economic ecosystem where everyone, everywhere in St. Louis can thrive and all partners are valuable in efforts to level the playing field in hiring, retention, and business opportunities across the region (St. Louis Business Journal 2019). We are first striving to work and learn together to increase employment and large-scale corporate purchasing from within 22 zip codes in the St. Louis region by the end of 2023. Fostering investment in these communities is a critical way to support the economic opportunity and quality of life in the neighborhoods from which many of our students and the future workforce will come (Guenther et al. 2019).

UMSL concluded a Master Campus Plan in 2021. The Plan calls for the consolidation of the university’s academic core to its North Campus, creating a more cohesive academic experience while connecting campus assets and creating a collaborative environment for learning, research and innovation. The subsequent demolition of vacant buildings and clearing of land on the South Campus will open 35 acres for a transformative development—The North St. Louis County Business and Workforce District.

The District will transform UMSL’s South Campus into a hub of academic and business activity—where we will leverage our academic and research expertise in partnership with industry and community—along Natural Bridge Road, including vibrant public gathering spaces that are well-lighted and pedestrian friendly. Easily accessible by a Metro Transit Center and within walking proximity to UMSL’s academic core, the district will become a prime location for mixed-use development that aligns with the university’s academic, research, and workforce mission. The Business and Workforce District will include workforce, business, and research incubators; entrepreneurship facilities and business accelerators; and mixed-use commercial and residential spaces including apartments, childcare, condominiums, restaurants, health services, grocery, and office spaces.

The university will leverage its business development expertise in UMSL Accelerate, physical and mental health clinics, and programs which train the region’s next healthcare professionals while delivering care to create space for other workforce and business development providers to connect with residents and businesses in the communities around campus and the region. Lastly, this site will provide companies a chance to locate and enhance research and innovation partnerships with faculty and students, leading to greater economic growth for the region.

U.S. News and World Report includes UMSL among the nation’s Top 100 Performers for Social Mobility, noting our ability to move the economic needle for students.  

This redevelopment of our south campus comes out of re-envisioning our land holdings as an asset, engaging the campus and neighboring communities, working with government partners, and our commitment to create access to opportunity for residents and businesses in North St. Louis County and the region.

U.S. News and World Report includes UMSL among the nation’s Top 100 Performers for Social Mobility, noting our ability to move the economic needle for students. UMSL’s average student initially enrolls with a family annual income of $34,000; one-year post-graduation data indicates that same student is earning an average of $45,000. Additionally, six-year graduation rates for Pell-grant eligible students have increased from 54% to 65%, ultimately decreasing the time to graduation as well as the average student debt at graduation. These data clearly indicate the advantages of an UMSL college education that is aligned with community and workforce needs and that focuses on student success and social mobility.

Next year, UMSL will celebrate 60 years of serving the St. Louis region, and while it is a young university, campus leadership is taking aggressive steps to reimagine UMSL as the public urban university of the future, an educationally relevant university that is vital to regional economic growth and development and a national leader in urban higher education.

This chapter was written with the input of Karl J. Guenther, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Economic and Community Development, and Adella D. Jones, Chief of Staff.

 

References Cited:
Ambrose, Susan A. and Laura A. Wankel. 2020. Higher Education’s Road to Relevance: Navigating Complexity. Jossey-Bass Professional Learning-Wiley.

Drew, James. 2021. In bid to address racial inequities, network of employers seeks to boost hiring, contracting with minorities. St. Louis Business Journal, Oct. 22.

Greater St. Louis, Inc. 2020. STL2030 Jobs Plan: Driving a Decade of Inclusive Growth.

Guenther, Karl J., Todd Swanstrom, and Thomas F. George. 2019. Pursuing the Anchor Mission in a Fragmented Suburban Setting: assets, capacity, and collective action. Metropolitan Universities Vol. 30 No. 4.

Sladek, Emily. 2019. Urban and Metropolitan Universities: the transformative power of anchor institutions. Metropolitan Universities Vol. 30 No. 1.