How Preferred Pathway and other partnerships provide solid foundations for students

David Harrison doesn't believe a career must be decided in high school-or even college. He focuses instead on how partnerships can pave the way for eventual paths.

The current and fifth president of Columbus State Community College initially followed the direction he received from a high school guidance counselor to an engineering career. Then he answered a newspaper ad that put him on the path to academia.

Students need a starting place but they don't need to "build a 30-year career," Harrison says. And helping them find a good start is "where a lot of the partnerships come into play."

The former college football center with a soft-spoken manner was lured into higher education by the prospect of leading a new partnership between the University of Dayton, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, and nearby Sinclair Community College.

"We were visiting my parents in Cincinnati and there was an ad in The Cincinnati Enquirer that said 'create the future,'" Harrison recalls. "They were combining their resources to help manufacturing companies in the Dayton area become more competitive, and they were looking for a founding director."

Working with manufacturing companies was not new for Harrison. He was six years into a management consulting career with Arthur Andersen-now Accenture. His last six months of consulting was with Worthington Industries, requiring him to stay in Columbus during the workweek. But he and his wife, Tracy, had a new daughter "and I didn't want to be a weekend dad," he explains.

"I showed the ad to my wife and she said, 'You've got to do it.' So I answered an ad in the paper. That's how I got into higher ed."

The transition "was an immediate fit," Harrison says. Soon he began commuting from Dayton to Columbus to obtain his doctorate in education administration from Ohio State University-setting his sights on an eventual college presidency.

His Ph.D. initially took Harrison to Florida as chief academic officer at Seminole Community College and then to the University of Central Florida in 2004 as provost for regional campuses, helping students progress from associate to bachelor degrees.

"We were able to create a model down there that really has become a national model called Direct Connect to UCF, and UCF has more undergraduates than Ohio State. It's a large institution. More than half their undergrads, more than half their bachelors, go to community college transfers," Harrison says.

A desire to be closer to family drew Harrison, his wife and their three children north in 2010. An only child, Harrison wanted to be close to his ailing parents. He began looking for opportunities in Ohio and learned Columbus State's then-president, Val Moeller, was planning to retire.

"This was the only job I applied for," Harrison says. "I needed to be in Ohio. If this job hadn't worked out, I'd be teaching high school math and coaching football or something. I needed to be here. It's been a good fit."

Part of what makes Columbus and Columbus State a good fit for Harrison is a local proclivity for his style of partnership.

"I came in with that mindset and thought it would take a little while to get Ohio State to the table, and in a lot of ways they were waiting on us." Working first with former OSU President Gordon Gee, Harrison helped develop the Preferred Pathway program that guarantees admission to Ohio State for students who complete associate degrees at Columbus State. Harrison was then able to add Preferred Pathway partnerships with eight other institutions-Otterbein University, Capital University, Ohio Wesleyan University, Columbus College of Art & Design, Franklin University, Ohio Dominican University, Miami University and Ohio University.

"We've got deepening partnerships with high schools as well," Harrison notes. In the 2015-16 school year, more than 2,400 high school students took Columbus State courses tuition-free under the state's College Credit Plus program, in which they can earn up to 30 hours-a full academic year-while still in high school. That option with the Preferred Pathway-also now recognized in state law-means "families really do have a choice with regard to student debt," Harrison says.

Even middle school students get attention from Columbus State.

"We've got a great program here called Fantastic Fridays. Our biology faculty will bring middle school students in by the busload. They've got five-gallon buckets of sheep eyeballs that the kids can see. ... At the middle school level, as much as anything, you're just trying to get kids interested in things," Harrison says.

But Harrison also appreciates that a college degree is not the best path for everyone. Partnerships with American Electric Power and JPMorgan Chase provide funds for Columbus State's work with middle and high schools to help youngsters and their families understand all their options.

"Students don't have to choose a career path when they're in high school because that career path is likely to change. … (Many are) going to be in careers that don't exist right now. But the ability to find something where they feel a sense of purpose and where they can make a living, that starts to build the things employers are really looking for-work ethic, the ability to work in teams, the ability to solve problems, the ability to have some resilience when things don't go right. Those kinds of skills can apply to any career," Harrison says.

He also cites a partnership with Honda of America and Worthington City Schools that has developed into a co-op. It allows students as early as their junior year of high school to split their weeks between working at Honda and taking Columbus State courses toward an electromechanical engineering degree. "They're making money while they're at Honda, and then when they graduate Honda hires them. Two years ago we had two 19-year-olds walk into Honda making $65,000 a year."

The city of Columbus is another partner of Columbus State, as is-on a smaller scale-Hot Chicken Takeover.

Fast Path was designed with the city to help adults who needed a jumpstart to employment after the recession. It is a four-to-six-week program to train for jobs in high-demand fields including child development, construction trades, healthcare and hospitality management. Hot Chicken Takeover founder and Head Fryer Joe DeLoss approached Harrison about two years ago with a partnership request to provide education that he could use as a growth opportunity for his employees.

"I loved it," Harrison says. "It really created a deeper alignment between us and the employer … Joe and I hit it off. At some level, we're in the same business. He's not in the chicken business; he's in the people business, and he's the first one to tell you," Harrison adds.

Partnerships with employers large and small are "something I feel we're pretty good at, and it's something that we've really focused on to be good at. In many cases we are our partners' only partner. And we have many partners, so part of the value we bring to the arrangement is really understanding how to put together creative solutions for mutual benefit, and most importantly in our line of work, that we are going to benefit the community," Harrison says.

He has found like-minded community and corporate leaders as a member of the Columbus Partnership, which puts him in regular contact with central Ohio's most influential civic circle.

"Partnerships aren't between organizations, they're between people. The ability for me to understand what the largest employers in the region are thinking and facing and planning really helps to make sure the college is aligned to provide our students opportunities to contribute. … We've got a very caring, committed corporate community and they care about education. They're as interested in my work as I am in theirs," Harrison says.

Away from work, Harrison takes mission trips to Guatemala for a week of building homes and schools. His wife joined him last time to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

"We had a 20-person team. Half of them were under 30. With what I do for a living, having that kind of immersion with young people is really important. You get way more out of those trips than you put into it," Harrison says.


Q&A

Why do you approach things through partnerships? Is it something you've always done?

Those are the professional experiences I've had, and they worked. We feel really strongly with the right partner you can get a lot more accomplished together than either of us could individually, especially when you look at it from a student's point of view. There's a continuum of touch points that students of all ages go through in their academic and professional careers and the better aligned those of us in education-higher ed and K-12-can be, the more successful students are going to be. And the better aligned that whole enterprise is with the employer and community, the better experience for the student and the greater success for the employer.

Why are you such a proponent for pathway programs from associate to bachelor's degrees?

One of the big issues that's facing higher education, that's facing students, is student debt, especially with a bachelor's degree, and the average debt load for bachelor's degree earners nationally is $30,000 or close to it … We believe strongly that that can be avoided through 2+2 and 3+1 partnerships. So students who come to Columbus State and earn their associate degree go to university as a junior (and) they're saving a lot of tuition dollars, well over 50 percent, really 60 or 70 percent. Many of our students are able to work, too, so not only are they saving money, they're making money while they're in school, and they do great when they get to the university.

Do you sometimes point kids into trades and away from bachelor's degrees?

That's a big part of what we do. We have more students here with bachelor's degrees now than we ever have because their major didn't lead to a high-enough paying career for them to service their college debt. So they come back here and get a technical skill that's going to lead directly into jobs, whether that's in IT or healthcare or those kinds of things.

What are your interests if you're able to get away with family?

We do a lot of hiking. We love to go white-water rafting … For about the last eight years I've been involved in mission work in Guatemala. I go down there once a year. It started when I was in Florida and I have just been drawn back there every year.

Mary Yost is the editor.