President's Blog

Legislative Testimony: 2019-02-21

Posted on September 13th, 2019

Back in February, I testified before a legislative committee in Findlay. I have no idea why it never occurred to me to publish my testimony here on the blog. Here’s what I had to say that day. It’s interesting to see how far the “stigma” conversation has progressed since this time. I gave this testimony just a few days after we launched the #EndCCStigma social media campaign.

Regional Economic Development Alliance Study Committee
Hancock Hotel
Findlay, OH

Testimony of
Steve Robinson, Ph.D.
Owens Community College
February 21, 2019

Good afternoon Senator McColley, Representative Hambley, and members of the Regional Economic Development Alliance Study Committee. My name is Steve Robinson. I am the President of Owens State Community College. I would like to thank Tim Mayle for the invitation to testify before you today. As I am sure you are aware, Mr. Mayle and his economic development team here in Hancock County work tirelessly to build the economic strength of this region of the state. At Owens Community College, we are proud to be a part of these efforts and strive to be an indispensable partner to local employers for post-secondary education and workforce training needs. It is a sincere pleasure to be here today.

I am also delighted to testify with great colleagues such as Chuck Bills of Ohio Logistics and Dean Monske of the Regional Growth Partnership. Along with Ohio Logistics, Owens Community College is an investor in RGP, and I am very proud to serve on its Board of Directors with Chuck, who serves on the Board of Trustees at Owens. I am also proud to serve on the Board of Raise the Bar Hancock County, a partnership of education, business, social service and community leaders dedicated to workforce development and economic growth.

As one of the 23 public two-year colleges in the State of Ohio, Owens Community College has a legal service district that comprises the entirety of Hancock, Wood, and Lucas counties, as well as portions of Ottawa and Sandusky counties. Our newly-developed mission, vision and strategic goals specifically outline workforce and economic development as key priorities of the institution. Our mission specifically charges us to foster community success that leads to rewarding careers and regional economic strength. One of our six overarching institutional strategic goals is to develop the regional workforce and strengthen the regional economy. Specifically, we have new key objectives to address local employment needs with relevant programs, enhance and promote apprenticeship, co-op and internship experiences, and improve and promote career and job placement services within our region. This commitment to workforce and economic development is not unique to Owens. Community colleges in this reason have strong working relationships with business and industry, as well as regional economic development organizations, in order to live out a mission of economic strength.

During my brief testimony, I have four big picture ideas to share with you about how Ohio might address benefits and challenges facing leaders and organizations working on economic development in our region. Before I share these ideas, I need to share my perspective about the high degree of alignment I have noticed in these areas during my relatively short time as an Ohioan. I moved to Northwest Ohio from Southeast Michigan. In my experience, Ohio has already taken bold steps forward to align education, workforce and economic development efforts. My four ideas center on building upon successes and momentum, and they are: encourage partnership and alignment; strengthen infrastructure on career pathways; further develop apprenticeship and co-op models; and directly address the stigma associated with technical careers and community colleges.

Encourage Partnership and Alignment

The State of Ohio has done much to foster effective partnerships between schools, colleges, universities and state agencies. As you are aware, post-secondary institutions in Ohio are required by Ohio Revised Code to form Regional Compacts; The Northwest Region Higher Education Compact—which includes University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, Northwest State Community College, Owens State Community College, Rhodes State College and Terra State Community College—was the first compact to be completed and signed last year.

Ohio has a robust ecosystem of public and private educational institutions, and this region of the state has a strong tradition of local collaboration. For example, here in Hancock County, Findlay City Schools and Millstream Career Center are proven leaders in talent development pipelines that serve as state-wide models. As local partners, we also monitor activity in other parts of the State to learn about best practices in collaboration. In the coming weeks, the Superintendent of Millstream Career Center, Penta Career Center, and I will be taking teams of people to Lorain County Community College to benchmark the partnerships with career technical centers in Northeast Ohio.

One collaboration that is specific to Owens is the suite of “Express” programs we have built with four-year transfer destination partners. Our first such program was “FalconExpress” with Bowling Green State University. Students are simultaneously admitted to Owens and BGSU, and unlike traditional community college transfer students, their credits transfer in real time. By paying community college tuition for their first two years, students realize incredible savings while staying on path toward their four-year degree. We have since built Express programs with University of Toledo (RocketExpress), and Lourdes University (GrayWolfExpress). Our OilerExpress program with the University of Findlay is in development and close to completion.

Through programs such as the TechNet Consortium and the RAPIDS Grant, two and four year public colleges collaborate on regional workforce training. A total of 11 Ohio community colleges formed a consortium named the Ohio Technical Skills Innovation Network or Ohio TechNet after each institution received $1 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Labor to create or expand job-driven training for the advanced manufacturing sector. These State and Federal investments help transform Ohio community colleges into an engine of economic growth that meets the job training needs of local employers and prepares workers for jobs in demand today and in the future. Programs and investments such as these encourage partnership and alignment among state colleges, universities and economic agencies. State investment in these initiatives makes a difference.

Strengthen Infrastructure on Career Pathways

Over the years, a number of programs have helped expand career pathways of Ohio students. College Credit Plus in particular has been enormously successful in growing significant college credit attainment. Even more so than the previous PSEO program, CCP allows high school graduates to begin college or university with early momentum. Dual enrollment is a vital tool in our toolbox for moving Ohioans toward family-sustaining careers and postsecondary credentials.

Likewise, initiatives such as the Ohio Transfer Module, Transfer Assurance Guide (or TAGs), Career-Technical Assurance Guide (CTAG) should be maintained and supported. Another legislative strategy to strengthen transfer resulted in the Statewide Guaranteed Transfer Pathways, which promise to significantly curtail credit duplication and loss of credit for Ohioans who transfer from one institution to another. As a member of the Guaranteed Transfer Pathways Steering Committee, I am pleased to inform the committee that serious and substantive work was done by the two and four year institutions in the State, as well as by the ODHE staff, in order to ensure that Ohio students could stay on path toward the completion of degrees and rewarding careers.

I would like to make one final note about College Credit Plus and funding for short-term certificates that is meant to reinforce dialogue community colleges are currently having with the Ohio Department of Higher Education and its newly-appointed Chancellor, Randy Gardner. Economic growth and talent development in technical careers could be greatly enhanced by expanding CCP options for Career Technical students. As you are aware, severe talent gaps exist in technical fields for high-wage, high-skill jobs. Expanding access to CCP for these students would be a sound investment in Ohio’s future, as would expansion of the current procedures for funding short-term certificates in these fields. Currently funding for these certificates is limited to $1,000 and the use of these funds has been limited by this restriction. The Ohio Association of Community Colleges has partnered with career technical centers in the State to examine how this investment could have a greater impact in technical career pathways. From our perspective, it is vital to increase the number of career tech pathways for students by eliminated CCP eligibility barriers who want to pursue a workforce-ready certificate or postsecondary credential.

Incentivize Apprenticeship and Business Collaboration

Across the country, apprenticeship programs are an important tool for addressing severe workforce shortages in skilled trades and advanced manufacturing. Statewide efforts such as Apprenticeship Ohio, as well as other trades-based programs, and an important component of this vital work. Here in Hancock County, Raise the Bar has partnered with Owens Community College to replicate the highly-successful FAME model of apprenticeship education. The Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education, or FAME is based on Toyota and similar manufacturing principles in partnership with regional employers and results in college credit and degrees. Owens Community College has developed a FAME-specific two-year associate of technical studies in applied engineering, specifically tailored to the needs of regional employer partners here in Hancock County, including Ball Metal, Cooper Tire, GSW Manufacturing, NISSIN, Rowmark, Whirlpool, Simona PMC, and Veoneer-Nissin Brake Systems.

The OH! FAME program blends classroom instruction with onsite work experience at a sponsoring company’s manufacturing facility. It is a selective admissions program where students are chosen to participate by a sponsoring company based on the student’s academic success, math capabilities, and interpersonal skills during the interview process. The sponsoring company pays for at least 50% of the student’s tuition and fees at Owens, and employs the student for a minimum of 24 hours per week at a minimum wage of $12 an hour. OH! FAME is a truly collaborative effort, but it would not be possible without the vision and leadership of the economic development community here in Hancock County, specifically Tim Mayle, Laurie Zydonic, and the Raise the Bar board. The formal partnership between OH! FAME and Owens Community College promises to become a state-wide model. We view it as a central part of our mission, having developed this specific degree pathway for the employers in our college district.

A similar, long-standing partnership between Owens and regional employers exists between the dealer service networks of Caterpillar and John Deere. Years ago, Owens developed full-accredited two-year applied sciences degrees in diesel technology and dealer service technician areas for Caterpillar and Deere. Students participate in a unique 8-week rotation between Owens and a regional dealership. All of these students have jobs in regional dealerships before the even begin the program.

In addition to our long-standing programs with Cat and Deere, Owens remains a leader in trades and union based apprenticeship programs. Owens currently has approximately 1,500 apprentices, more than 1,300 of which are with our construction trade unions; approximately 200 apprentices in manufacturing. We partner with more than 35 unions across the state, including Plumbers and Pipefitters, Sheet Metal, Operating Engineers, Iron workers, and Boiler makers. Over 60 regional industrial manufacturers conduct their apprenticeship training at Owens, including General Motors, Chrysler, Jeep, Vehtech, Centaur Tool, Marathon Products, Cooper Standard, Norplas, JCI, Cooper Tire. We have programs in Advanced Manufacturing Training such as PLCs, Robotics, Mechatronics, Variable Frequency Drives, and Process Controls; our industries and Partnerships include Automotive & Appliance Manufacturing including Tier 1 & 2, Machining, Food and Petroleum Processing, Power Distribution, Service, Glass Products; Engineering- Communications, Design, Manufacturing, Aviation, and Energy.

Address Stigma Associated with Technical Careers and Community Colleges

As elected officials who are active in your community, I am certain that you have heard from employers first-hand about the dire need for trained workforce in technical and advanced manufacturing careers. Despite this great need and the family-sustaining wages associated with these careers, a serious image problem persists with any career path that does not point to a residential, four-year college experience.

Ohio families have inaccurate assumptions about manufacturing careers. To many, the mental image of a factory is one from a Dickens novel: dirty, dead-end work. Intellectually, many opinion leaders know the reality of advanced manufacturing with its clean, efficient and highly-automated environment. Still, the misconceptions persist, even among those who “know better.” It is our job as educators, business leaders, and economic developers to push back at these misconceptions at every opportunity. Initiatives at the state-level have begun to tackle this issue. The Ohio Manufacturer’s Association “Creators Wanted” initiative is one effective example. Another is the skilled trades initiative “Go Build” currently in place in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. Go Build Alabama in particular uses recruitment campaigns aimed at digital natives to meet them where they are: their mobile devices. At Owens, we have launched a similar campaign to do the same thing: 6 second, 10 second and 20 second videos promoting careers in technology, health care, and transfer. All of these are designed to be viewed on mobile screens with the device on mute.

In closing, if there were one thing that could be done to address workforce and economic development challenges in our region, it would be to eliminate the stigma associated with technical career pathways and community colleges. The combination of low state-wide college attainment levels and high levels of unfilled high-wage jobs at the certificate and associate degree level will remain a pain point for Ohio until we directly address and change the stigma associated with not immediately attending a four-year university. If we could wave a magic wand and make technical careers “cool,” we could see transformational economic growth in our region. Likewise, if we could persuade families to begin college credit attainment in high school with College Credit Plus and start post-secondary at a local community college, the impact on college debt, graduation and degree attainment, as well as career success would be transformational. Those of us who are testifying on this panel sing from this hymnal every day, and I suspect we are “preaching to the choir” in addressing this committee. The more we can do together to change public perception on these issues, the better we can address the quality of life for our citizens and the economic success of the businesses and industries that make our region strong.

Steve Robinson, Ph.D.

My Response to Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s “Question 14”

Posted on September 6th, 2019

I’m not sure if my letter to the editor will make it into the pages of The Atlantic, so I thought I would publish it here.


In response to Senator Sasse’s thoughtful “Seventeen Questions Every College Should Be Asking,” I would like to provide one answer to Question 14: “If the state’s community colleges could be folded into our system, would you want them? Why or why not?” Before I answer, I would like to praise the Senator’s approach of beginning with a set of questions. It’s a rare politician that leads with questions instead of pushing ahead with answers. The questions are all vital and important; many of them are at the center of important reform work going on within higher education in our country.

First off, I’d like to share a bit of context. America’s community colleges have a proud history, and I am sure the Senator is aware of much of it. There are approximately 1,100 community and technical colleges in our country, and five of them are in the state of Nebraska. These colleges play a vital and underappreciated role in our national story. For example, the Nebraska Community College Association provides an excellent description of their member colleges:

Nebraska community colleges provide efficient, hands-on training at an affordable price for students who are eager to join the workforce in a short amount of time. And for students who want to continue their education, there are numerous transfer options for students who want to reduce their college debt and still pursue a four-year degree.

There is a similar story to be told in the remaining 49 states. In many ways, the comprehensive community college is a uniquely American idea. Rooted in junior colleges that were founded in the early 20th century, the idea for the modern community college really took hold in American policy with the 1947 Truman Commission report. Most of our institutions were founded later in the 1960s during the Civil Rights era. At the present moment, nearly half of all America’s college students attend a community college, and more than half will graduate with some credits from their local two-year college.

Two aspects of Senator Sasse’s Question 14 require some friendly prodding. First, the idea of folding community colleges into “our system” is problematic, as many states already have the two and four year colleges in a unified higher education structure. Further, the notion that the university is “our” system seems to imply that the community colleges are somehow “their” or “other,” which is decidedly not the case. In fact, many of the tricky questions on Sen. Sasse’s list are more easily answered by community colleges, which have affordable tuition, relevant programs with clear labor market outcomes, and close ties to employers and community groups. Second, the follow up question “Would you want them? Why or why not?” perpetuates a stigma against community colleges that many of us are trying very hard to change. America’s community colleges boast many of the attributes associated with small liberal arts colleges: small class sizes, highly qualified faculty, and a focus on classroom learning as opposed to research and grants writing. We are proud to be “community” colleges and rightfully boast about being the front door to the middle class. For too long, the local community college has been a “well-kept secret,” and the increased cost of higher education has caused many to look in our direction for relevant credentials that provide labor market value. In fact, many community colleges are seeing an increase in the number of students with bachelor’s degrees who come back to school to add a community college certificate or degree, as these credentials were designed with particular career paths in mind.

It must be pointed out that all of Senator Sasse’s important questions apply to community colleges. Price, cost and competition impact us as well, and our colleges continue to struggle to make college affordable. But as a President of one of our country’s community colleges, my answer to Question 14 is this: Community colleges already are a vital part of the US higher education system, and nearly every university in the country (including exclusive and Ivy League institutions) are beginning to realize the important role that 2-year college transfer students play in their success. Look to the great work of national organizations such as Achieving the Dream, the Aspen Institute, the American Association of Community Colleges, and the Community College Research Center (to name only a few) for excellent and probative work on the issues raised by Senator Sasse. America’s community colleges are ready to answer these questions. For readers who are interested in the great work of community colleges, I would humbly reference the dozens of voices on our “End Community College Stigma” Podcast, as well as the social media #EndCCStigma campaign. The impact of our colleges is widespread, and that impact directly addresses many of the problems and disruptions raised by the Senator’s seventeen questions. To paraphrase LL Cool J, “Don’t call it a comeback–we’ve been here for years.”


Steve Robinson, Ph.D.