By Todd Cohen, Director, SEED Initiative, American Association of Community Colleges
(This article appears in the October, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)
Engaging with the community to build sustainable and thriving regional economies is an important pursuit for higher education. For community colleges, in particular, this quest is also a fundamental part of what they are and who they serve.
Community colleges were founded on the principle of service to the community. Most community college students are local residents who stay in the region. Sustainability practices learned at the college, therefore, are likely to be applied locally as those students become part of the fabric of that community. Colleges also serve thousands of local residents and businesses through continuing education, small business support services, and workforce programs. These are critical vehicles that colleges are using to inform the public (i.e. local consumers) about the importance of environmental stewardship and how to take advantage of green technologies like solar panels or sustainable building products. In addition, outside the campus, colleges are key stakeholders in a growing number of regional climate and energy partnership initiatives to reduce community energy consumption or advocate for revised local environmental policies.
All of these characteristics position community colleges to not only lead in creating healthy communities, but to build the local green economy—a critical element of what is needed today.
“Knowing and being intimately connected to a particular region and community are hallmarks of the community college and are fundamental components of sustainability,” writes Mary Spilde, President of Lane Community College. “This connection to place makes community colleges particularly well suited to engage communities in living sustainably.”1
The Sustainability Education and Economic Development (SEED) initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges and ecoAmerica aims to advance sustainability and green workforce development practices at community colleges by sharing innovative models and resources and building the capacity of community college administrators, faculty, and staff to grow the green economy. The SEED Strategic Plan, developed by a task force of college presidents, identifies “community engagement” as one of three pillars representing the role two-year colleges can play in advancing sustainable development:2
- Convene and support local economic development, community, and workforce development stakeholders to develop regional green economy and clean energy strategies;
- Educate businesses, policymakers, and the public about the importance of sustainability and ways to become involved;
- Foster green small business development and entrepreneurship.
Within each of these areas there exist a growing number of college examples:
Convene and Support
At Santa Fe Community College (SFCC), engaging in clean energy-related public policy development is core to its mission and critical to ensuring students get and succeed in jobs. At a local level, adjunct faculty continue to work closely with city officials and the Home Builders Association in an effort to make the local building codes green. At a regional level, the college serves on a city/county task force that developed the state’s first Renewable Energy Financing District. At a state level, SFCC faculty and students participated on a task force that provided recommendations to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department on solar industry incentive package design options. In each case, college representatives not only help shape the state’s overall approach to sustainability, but also are able to rapidly refine curriculum and training programs to reflect expected market changes. When asked why the college has devoted so much time to the public policy process, Randy Grissom, the Director of SFCC’s Sustainability Technology Center, exclaims, “We don’t have a lot of industry here [in Santa Fe]. So, as a community, we need to take a risk and try to grow one. And as our state economic development officials seek to provide incentives to draw these green technology companies to the state, we always remind them that we better have a skilled workforce. Or the jobs will ultimately go somewhere else.”
For more examples of community colleges engaged, specifically, in policy and regional planning efforts see AACC SEED’s new action plan, Creating an Environment for Growing Green Jobs: Community Colleges Shaping State and Local Energy Policies.
Oakland Community College (MI) established an Environmental Solutions Center and Energy Awareness Center to promote community engagement on campus and to increase visibility, enrollment, and positive public relations for both the program and the college. These centers host dozens of specialized workshops in renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency methods which attract local contractors and other business community members seeking to integrate green components into their operations. In turn, these companies employ college students for activities such as conducting company energy audits and developing company energy master plans.
Foster Business Development
The Energy Institute at ACUPCC Signatory Hocking College (OH) delivers comprehensive workforce development and entrepreneurial services in the areas of fuel cell manufacturing, solar and wind energy, automotive hybrid technology, and hydroelectric power. Its experiential laboratories lend commercialization support to help students building fuel cell components sell them to a local manufacturer—with the proceeds reinvested in the institute’s programs. The institute is part of a number of regional partnerships, including Rural Action, Inc. and Clean Fuels Ohio in an effort to expand the use of biodiesel along the U.S. Route 33 corridor from Columbus, Ohio, to the Ohio River. This Hocking model that combines hands-on training for students with research and commercialization services for businesses is helping to bring clean energy products to market. In the Appalachian region, where the manufacturing base has severely eroded, this is a critical opportunity.
These represent just a few examples of colleges that are working with their local communities. When one considers that 90% of the U.S. population lives within 25 miles of a community college, the idea of utilizing these 2-year institutions as key sustainability messengers and drivers becomes intriguing.
AACC’s SEED initiative looks forward to working with Second Nature and others in ensuring more community colleges are able to play their part in this important effort.
1 From a document written for the AACC SEED initiative entitled, The Community College Role in Leading the Green Economy Transformation
2 The other pillars include “Workforce Development” (developing quality green job training opportunities for students and workers that lead to long-term careers) and “Sustainable Colleges” (making sustainability a guiding principle for all institutional practices, offerings, and academic offerings).