The six guys clustered around a transmission hardly look like state-of-the-art high-skilled workers. Yet these students are toiling at a potent nexus of academia and business. They're ripping apart General Motors Corp. cars with sophisticated GM equipment, working toward associate degrees at Gateway Community-Technical College--and to careers as technicians of GM-made natural-gas-powered cars.

Over the past seven years, GM has donated $2 million of equipment and 75 demonstration cars to the college's North Haven (Conn.) campus. And when the auto maker started investing in alternative-powered cars, Gateway sought out a federal grant to run its technician training. ``Satisfying the needs of the community is one of our goals, but now we're finding this other [business] market, and we're pushing the envelope to get into it,'' says Roy C. Francis, coordinator of the auto program at Gateway.

WELCOME BUSINESS. In accepting his party's renomination Aug. 29 in Chicago, President Bill Clinton vowed to ``make the typical community-college education available to every American''--with, among other proposals, a $1,500-a-year tuition tax credit. The pledge acknowledged a new reality: Community colleges, long the humble stepsisters of U.S. higher education, are in demand.

``In the past, community colleges didn't seem to have that strong an interest in working with [companies], and we weren't that easy to work with,'' says Stan Horner, senior manager of training and education at chipmaker AMD. These days, though, community colleges are awash in corporate contracts. With government funding dwindling and their full-time student base stagnating, the institutions welcome the business. Local governments see the programs as engines for business development. Employers, meanwhile, have discovered that the colleges are better at most sorts of training--and cheaper, too.

Community colleges were born after World War II, and they multiplied through the 1960s and 1970s. Today, some 5 million students are enrolled in degree programs, paying average tuition of $1,492. But deeper ties with business and industry ``are the future of the community-college movement,'' says George Baker, who studies community colleges at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. ``Business and industry have to have training because technology is changing so rapidly,'' he says. Massive restructuring, moreover, has left thousands of displaced workers in need of new skills.

IN THE CHIPS. Look at Austin Community College (ACC) in Texas. A sleepy 1,800-student two-year institution when it opened in 1973, it now serves 26,000 for-credit students. On top of that, 18,000 employees get training through $2.7 million in annual contracts with local businesses such as AMD. The chipmaker gave the college $400,000 in equipment; ACC, which already had worked with AMD and other technology companies to create programs for semiconductor manufacturing technicians, put in $2 million. The result: a new facility that ultimately could train up to 350 chip workers a year.

Most contracts are more modest, lasting less than three months and costing under $10,000--far less than companies typically would pay elsewhere. In Pittsfield, Mass., papermaker Crane & Co. pays Berkshire Community College an average of $400 per student, a fraction of the $1,500 it once spent on commercial courses. ``Because we do it every day, we think we can be more cost-effective,'' says Robert J. Kopecek, president of Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa. That's compelling logic--for employers and colleges alike.

By Susan Jackson in North Haven, Conn.


Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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