COLUMBIA, Mo. - Whether exclusive private schools or massive public campuses, college has long been seen as extended preparation for the real world. These days, the real world is spending more and more time at college.
Historic lows in public funding and a shortage of skilled manufacturing workers are leading a growing number of states to turn to the private sector to train and educate students, potentially speeding their path through college, providing needed labor and reducing some of the budget burdens faced by higher education.
In Missouri, the emerging partnerships have spawned a so-called "Innovation Campus" where businesses will employ students as apprentices and help pick up the cost for their education - either by paying them or contributing money for their tuition.
University of Central Missouri President Charles Ambrose, whose school plans to build the "Innovation Campus" on a 100-acre expanse just outside Kansas City, sees the project answering demands on higher education institutions to deal with dwindling funding from state government while turning out students who don't enter the workforce with suffocating student-loan debt.
"It would be very difficult to tell where the production force stopped and the classroom started, who is a student and who is an employee, what is a laboratory and what is a production facility, who is a manager and who is a faculty member," Ambrose said.
Colleges see such partnerships as a chance to steer students into career tracks before their charges even leave campus. Businesses covet more-educated workers with the specific skills necessary to succeed in their workplaces. And students envision getting a head start on a four-year degree by taking college classes while still in high school, graduating after just two years on campus and with far less student debt than their peers.
"The decline in public support is causing people to cooperate, and to rethink things," said Tim Franklin, a higher education consultant in State College, Pa., who previously oversaw university economic development projects and business partnerships at both Penn State and Virginia Tech.
Ambrose's school is partnering with businesses such as Exergonix, a startup company specializing in utility-size storage units for electricity. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon joined Ambrose and Exergonix's CEO in late February to announce the plan, which he envisions as a model for other efforts in the state.
The program expects to enroll up to 30 students this fall, starting with a group of high school juniors attending the Summit Technology Academy, a Lee's Summit school district program that draws students from 16 area high schools. The students will take dual-enrollment courses through Metropolitan Community College with the intent of graduating with an associate's degree on top of their high school diplomas.
Participants also will work closely with corporate mentors at companies such as Cerner Corp. and DST Systems Inc., which are actively involved in shaping the new program's curriculum. In return, the companies must commit to creating a certain number of new jobs for program graduates. Nixon is tapping a $500,000 federal block grant to start the effort and setting aside $10 million in competitive grants for the broader, statewide initiative.
"We're going back to the future of an apprenticeship model," Ambrose said. "You learn under the masters, and as soon as you are credentialed, you move up to the next level and advance."
Like most states, public support of higher education has been on a steady decline in Missouri for much of the past decade. Earlier this year, Nixon proposed a 12.5 percent cut to higher education spending in the next fiscal year, prompting lawmakers in the state House of Representatives to counter that proposal with a plan to eliminate a $30 million health care program for blind Missourians who earn too much to qualify for the Medicaid health care program for low-income residents.
State lawmakers subsequently agreed to keep funding flat for public colleges and universities, while the Missouri Senate has restored the money need for the blind health-care plan. Lawmakers from the two chambers are now negotiating their differences before sending a budget to the governor for his signature by May 11.
A recent report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers association found that per-student state and local funding for higher education has fallen 12.5 percent over the last five years - and reached its lowest point in the 25 years since the study began.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett is calling for budget cuts of between 20 percent and 30 percent for higher education in the next fiscal year, following a decline of about 20 percent in aid to state-supported universities this year.
That has prompted schools such as Bloomsburg University in central Pennsylvania to collaborate with a community college and career center in Lehigh on a job training effort that, like the Missouri program, taps local businesses to offer a specialized degree program - in this case a bachelor of applied science with an emphasis on technical leadership.
Vincent Basile, the program's interim director, said the school wants to more directly meet the needs of Pennsylvania employers with a focused degree program that aligns classes in information technology, accounting, business and management.
The focus is on applying technology to meet the needs of business organizations," he said. "We want their input. Any program like this needs to be continually evolving to meet the changing needs of the workplace and preparing the students to better fit in."
In New Hampshire, which ranks last in the nation in per-capita public support of higher education, the state system saw its already meager public support cut nearly in half last year. Keene State College, a liberal arts school, has turned to the local Chamber of Commerce to help develop a Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
College President Helen Giles-Gee said the nascent effort was a response to employers "complaining of not having workers who met their needs."
Ambrose, the University of Central Missouri president, said that colleagues who retain the lone silo approach to educating their students do so at their own risk.
"There's going to be a lot of us in higher education who are going to wake up one morning and see that the train has already left the station," he said.
Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H. and Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia contributed to this report.