A simple message is critical in economic impact studies

By Matthew Dembicki, Published June 7, 2007
June 8, 2007 Community College Times

Robert “Rab” Thornton, dean of out­reach services at Housatonic Community College (HCC) in Bridgeport, Conn., used to inundate businesses and lawmakers with information about his college. He would provide them with detailed data on ev­erything from full-time enrollment (FTE) to how much more people with associate degrees could earn.

But businesses weren’t interested in the information, which frustrated Thornton.

“It was as if we were speaking French,” Thornton said. “We were talking FTE and they were talking return on investment.”

HCC officials mulled over how to convey the importance of the college to the commu­nity and businesses. They decided to focus on one question: How much was it worth to the city of Bridgeport to have HCC? The answer: $60 million a year. And that’s what HCC focused on when it pitched it services.

Once the college simplified its message, business and community began to pay at­tention, Thornton said.

“It was finally like speaking English together; It clicked,” he said.

In 2004, HCC commissioned another $7,000 socio-economic study, this time including the college’s economic impact on its entire 11-town service area. It showed that HCC brought in $179.9 million annu­ally to the region.

“That got me in to see mayors, first se­lectmen, legislators, state higher education committee members and the state higher education commissioner,” Thornton said. “It was amazing. People suddenly took us seriously because we finally did a report worthy of business.”

Julian Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center, a nonprofit that works with community colleges to help them with regional collabora­tions, agreed that many public two-year colleges commission economic impact reports, but they usually don’t pack­age data culled from extensive reports very well.

The ones that do have a much better chance or garnering attention from busi­nesses, he said.

For example, Grand Rapids Commu­nity College (GRCC) in Michigan last fall released the results of its comprehensive economic impact study. The lead mes­sage: the college contributes $977.5 mil­lion to the service area.

“When you are addressing economists, businesspeople and taxpayers, you need answers in dollars and cents and hard data to back them up,” said GRCC Presi­dent Juan Olivarez.

Other community colleges show the same savvy. In a report released in April, Ivy Tech Community College (Indiana) focused on the fact that it contributed more than $700 million to the state’s economy, while Mount Hood Communi­ty College (Oregon) centered its economic report on contributing $603.3 million to its service area. Meanwhile, Pellissippi State Community College (Tennessee) noted that it pumps about $111 million into the local economy.

“The colleges that have done good eco­nomic analysis are apart and it provides a basis for conversation” with industry, according to Alssid.

Such talks have helped HCC land a place at the table with businesses. Bridge­port is starting a $1.3 billion redevelop­ment and expansion of its harbor area, and local businesses and lawmakers are looking to the college to provide skilled workers in construction and eventually for retail positions, Thornton said.

HCC not only used its data to show lo­cal lawmakers and business leaders what the college did for the local economy, it also used the data with state legislators to secure more state funding.

In Connecticut, HCC had previously struggled to get the attention of private and public funders, competing with more recognizable colleges and universities such as Yale University, Trinity College and even the University of Connecticut, which received a lot of local and national atten­tion because of its basketball program.

But that magic number—$180 million—again helped to open doors. Thornton used that figure to “cement” in the minds of state lawmakers—especially members of the fi­nance, appropriations and higher education committee—the value of the college.

Once he got their ear, he also began to present other information, such as enroll­ments and students success data. That was another bonus, as legislators were also interested to see how colleges in the state used state funds.

“It has opened up the transparency ques­tion very favorably for us,” Thornton said.

In fact, the state education department lauded HCC for being proactive in this area, he said.

The advocacy yielded HCC a state-funded $51 million building that will double the size of the campus.

In fact, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) last month joined college officials and others at the groundbreaking, which drew interest from the media and other college leaders in the state. She noted that HCC was important to the region because it helped to bring in $180 million.

“You can’t buy press like that,” Thorn­ton said.