New Problems Require Entrepreneurial Thinking

For the past few years, California Community Colleges (and public higher education in general) have been through the budgetary wringer. Year after year, budget cuts continually compromise both the quality of the education and the quantity of classes provided and students served. It’s no wonder, then, that colleges are becoming more innovative in their approach to conducting the business of educating students.

For a number of community colleges in California, thinking and acting entrepreneurially is becoming an act of necessity. Most colleges or districts have their own independent foundations (with a total of 92 independent community college/district foundations in California at last count), which serve to augment public dollars with privately raised funds.

The need for the work of our community college foundations has perhaps never been greater as the public support for the system dwindles. According to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, “enrollment at the California Community Colleges has grown 44% in the last 15 years, yet per-student funding in 2009-10 (adjusted for inflation) was lower than it was in 1995-96.”

Pierce College Halloween Harvest Festival

Entrance to the annual Pierce College Halloween Harvest Festival

The Los Angeles Times recently provided a national perspective on the problem: “A year ago, higher-education budgets across the nation were trimmed $1.2 billion. The expected cuts this year: $5 billion.” (Ceasar & Watanabe, “Education takes a beating nationwide,” 7/31/2011).

Amid all this uncertainty, the time is right to for colleges to invest in themselves. Enter the Social Enterprise Academy (SEA) – a one-year program to help community colleges select and develop viable, mission-related ventures that can be used to expand their income. The SEA is currently underway with five Southern California colleges participating, and is being conducted by the Academies of Social Entrepreneurship thanks to funding from The California Endowment.

The SEA will help the participating college foundations expand markets for existing services and products while exploring ideas for new ones. Participants will develop ventures that generate discretionary income and more services for their colleges and foundations. Along the way, they’ll learn about marketing research and feasibility studies for new ventures, operational planning skills, sources of seed capital, the rules and regulations governing when and how a California Community College can and cannot use campus assets to raise earned income, and more.

When the academy is complete, each college foundation will be able to present the venture plan it’s created to a panel of potential investors (think NBC’s “Shark Tank”), with the chance of securing at least $20,000 in start-up funding.

This may sound like a typical program for an MBA student, but for community college leaders wanting to raise private dollars to supplement their rapidly dwindling state support, it isn’t quite as common.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the participants in this unique educational program over the summer. These are professionals who are already balancing an ever-expanding collection of responsibilities thanks to continued divestment in public education. Yet they are committed to this exciting yet rigorous process, which could prove beneficial for years to come for each of their respective institutions. For the participants, this offers a chance to make an innovate change or implement a new idea that could reverberate throughout the community colleges.

While the SEA program for community college foundation leaders is relatively new for our system, the concept isn’t.

Butte College Solar Array

Just a portion of the solar panel installation at Butte College

Already a number of California Community Colleges are engaging in business ventures and activities that increase support for their students and services. The spectrum of activities is as diverse as our state itself. Everything from wedding ceremonies being held in some of the more beautiful areas of the state (such as Lake Tahoe Community College’s Ledbetter Terrace), to fall festivals and corn mazes taking place at colleges with strong agricultural programs and/or available land to dedicate to alternative revenue generation (i.e., Pierce College’s annual fall extravaganza), to culinary arts programs that share students’ talents and learning with the community through catering and restaurants (American River College’s Oak Café is one example of such a program that is heralded by the community).

Joining these more traditional examples of late are new ones that reflect current practices and technology. One such example is Butte College, which recently became the first “grid positive” campus in the nation, saving millions of dollars in energy costs while recouping money through the sale of excess electricity production. Such programs capitalize on the very training being offered to students and assets of the campus to provide a community benefit or resource while making money in the process.

All of these colleges should be commended for their efforts and work to turn crisis into opportunity, but certainly this list is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s never been more important than today that college begin to diversify their forms of revenue and stop relying solely upon state budget allocations. Earned income programs are a must, and they require the types of entrepreneurial thinking that the California Endowment is trying to foster through the Social Enterprise Academy.

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About paullanning

Co-founder, Ascend Partners Group, LLC

3 Responses to “New Problems Require Entrepreneurial Thinking”

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