Schools warm to economic development: Colleges crank out programs to fit latest initiatives

Academic purists often hold contempt for politicians and executives seeking help with economic development initiatives. It doesn’t take a political science degree to wonder if someone is trying to stoke votes, ambitions or profits-on the cheap.

But in Indiana, more colleges are tailoring their curriculum to support economic development priorities, realizing what’s good for the region can be good for their enrollment.

“An increasing number of universities don’t view themselves as ivory towers anymore,” said Uday Sukhatme, executive vice chancellor at IUPUI.

Leigh Ann Danzey-Bussell, an assistant professor of sports studies and director of the new motorsports program at Marian College, puts it bluntly: “Institutions of higher learning all fight for the same thing-students and their money.”

IUPUI over the last couple of years has rolled out new programs in areas including forensics, biotechnology, biomedical engineering and motorsports. Not coincidentally, all those programs fit a need identified by state and local leaders and employers.

They’re all sectors where Indiana has a potential to grow, while the state’s traditional manufacturing jobs shrink as companies shift production to low-wage foreign plants.

No secondary institution has been so fast to market or so prolific in new degree programs as Ivy Tech Community College.

The state-owned, two-year college has cranked out 11 programs in about a year ranging from health care, health information, motorsports-even mortuary sciences, in response to the trends of aging baby boomers and mass retirement of funeral home directors.

Part of Ivy Tech’s motivation is that it’s beholden to state funding, and Gov. Mitch Daniels previously campaigned on growing a number of the industries for which the community college now trains. And his lieutenant is Carol D’Amico, Indiana executive vice president and central Indiana chancellor, who worked with Daniels in the Bush administration.

While it’s not surprising that state-owned institutions feel compelled to serve the needs of the political and public good, many private universities not tied to state purse strings are also following the trend.

Sense of urgency

The University of Indianapolis was active in supply chain studies before city leaders a few years ago put forth a formal initiative to grow the logistics industry-long misunderstood as mere warehousing jobs.

U of I offers a concentration in supplychain management and its business school recently started offering a minor in the field.

Last spring, U of I hosted a summit that included prominent area logistics heads and the chief information officer of Arkansasbased Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer.

“We are very aware of Indiana’s sense of urgency to improve its economic base,” said Deborah Balogh, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Indianapolis. “From our point of view, the private institutions have a significant role to play in economic development efforts. It’s not just about the major research universities.”

How have academic institutions, where bureaucracy and campus politics can stifle the best ideas, been able to launch these career-specific programs so quickly?

First, “it’s making it a priority,” said Ivy Tech’s D’Amico.

Ivy Tech hired its first-ever vice president for work-force and academic development. It’s also been heavily consulting the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

Also, many of the new programs aren’t much of a stretch from what colleges have been doing; they’re an extension of an existing program.

At Indiana State University, its new motorsports management minor emerged after three departments in three of its colleges were able to play well together.

Collaboration from existing offerings ensures “you’re not sacrificing academic [quality]. You’re not creating a completely new curriculum,” said IUPUI’s Sukhatme.

Some of the programs Ivy Tech has been generating have ties to existing departments–its new motorsports program borrows from the automotive technology program. But teaching students to fix a fender on an F-150 is far different from fabricating a racecar from exotic materials. So Ivy Tech was forced to learn from racing teams and race component makers, relying on their advice as to what skills would be needed.

“The college got it in short order,” said Derrick Walker of Indianapolis-based Walker Racing.

Fortunately for Ivy Tech, consultants like Walker saw the reciprocal value of getting involved with a school. When he ran Roger Penske’s Reading, Pa.-based team in the 1980s, Walker was keen to take the employment recommendations from a teacher at a local trade school.

“This guy every year called us and would say, ‘You ought to take a look at this [student],’ He was never wrong,” Walker said.

Walker said his industry’s need for young talent is perpetual, but suitable job candidates aren’t easy to find or to screen quickly. He also noted that some young people interested in motorsports careers aspire to move “south of the border,” as he calls NASCAR country, to work with stock car teams. Those mechanics “swing from trees,” said the open-wheel racing kingpin, poking fun of the comparatively unsophisticated NASCAR racing technology.

Colleges competing

One question raised by the explosion of college programs tailored to economic growth sectors is whether colleges could collide with offerings that are too similar.

So far, that doesn’t appear to be happening, at least in the motorsports industry that in central Indiana employs 10,000 people at 400 businesses paying annual wages of $425 million.

While Ivy Tech focuses on hands-on mechanical capabilities, schools such as Marian and Indiana State focus on different aspects of the management side of the industry. Meanwhile, IUPUI’s program has a bent toward mechanical engineering.

Marian’s Danzey-Bussell points out that many of the new college programs also have applications beyond specific economic development niches.

The alignment of college curriculum and economic development issues keeps right on rolling. Ivy Tech’s D’Amico is gunning for federal grants to help launch at least three new programs next year involving health care, logistics and advanced manufacturing. The latter is especially timely, she said, with Honda Motor Co. building a car plant in Greensburg and hundreds of parts suppliers likely to be affected.

And though she won’t say how much money Ivy Tech will seek, “We’re going to be going to the General Assembly with a request to help us with these initiatives.”

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