Employer and Community College Partnership Challenge

Trends in Employer Partnerships With Community Colleges

Insights From Strada’s National Grant Challenge


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Partnerships between community colleges and employers have the opportunity to address local and regional economic needs through a range of tools, including supporting student success through resources and services, integrating work-based learning, and building career pathways. To understand how community colleges and employers approach and implement partnerships across the nation, we analyzed the content of the more than 100 proposals submitted in response to Strada’s Employer and Community College Partnership Challenge.

Key Findings


Employers and community colleges pursue shared goals of program completion and job placement by collaborating on student outreach and support throughout the education-to-work journey.


Collaborating on curriculum development and delivery is a foundational component of many partnerships. Combining activities like curriculum advising with other types of involvement, such as providing financial support for students, may be an important step in incentivizing students to pursue programs aligned with workforce needs.


Through partnerships, individual career preparation activities can become part of a coordinated career development experience that has the potential to benefit students and employers.

The community college mission is manifold. To help fulfill their purpose of providing equitable, quality, accessible postsecondary education that opens the door to further education and career opportunity — while at the same time offering tailored training to meet local workforce needs — many have developed productive partnerships with employers. At their most effective, these partnerships offer considerable benefits to students, institutions, and employers. Community colleges and employers can collaborate on programs and services that generate stronger institutional outcomes and improve talent pipelines, while making available to students the resources and expertise that can help them connect their education to career pathways.

In recognition of the many learning and career benefits that partnerships between institutions and employers offer to students, Strada released a request for proposals for a $4 million Employer and Community College Partnership Challenge grant in June 2022. The challenge asked institutions to submit proposals detailing the data-driven local or regional challenge their partnership would address and what their solution entailed, in addition to calling for employers to share accountability and commit resources to ensure partnership success.

Strada received a total of 109 proposals for the challenge, spanning 35 states. Just under one-third of proposals came from minority-serving institutions, and 38 percent came from rural institutions. The innovations and insights that philanthropic funders, like Strada and others, often learn about through the grant-making process are not usually accompanied by mechanisms to share that learning widely with the public. Our analysis seeks to fill that gap by surfacing findings from a unique proposal process in which community colleges were asked to include specific commitments from employers. While 11 community colleges were selected as grantees through this competitive national process, there are insights to glean from the 65 proposals that met all of the requirements and criteria of the request for proposals. 

The following findings provide a summary of employer engagement and partnership elements across a range of geographies, sectors, institutional characteristics, and regional economic contexts. After starting with an overview of industries included in the proposals, we identify some of the most common partnership solutions and spotlight the different types of employer commitments included in these proposals. We then look at some of the student experiences and supports included in the proposals, such as work-based learning, guidance, and financing. Finally, we summarize the approaches that proposals took to measuring the impact and outcomes of partnerships.


Workforce Need Was Greatest in Health Care

Institutions were asked to show how their proposed partnership would respond to data-driven local economic challenges. Health care, manufacturing, transportation, and information technology were the most common areas of identified local economic need in proposals. Twenty-five percent of applicants proposed engaging in employer partnerships across multiple sectors.


Proposed Partnership Solutions Included Curriculum Changes

Proposals presented a range of solutions to address local economic needs, including working with employers to align curriculum and providing earn-and-learn opportunities for students.

Providing Work-Based Learning Opportunities Was the Most Common Employer Commitment

Employer partners committed to supporting partnerships in different ways. Most frequently, employers committed to providing work-based learning opportunities, followed by advising on curriculum and mentoring student participants. Employer commitments also included financial support ranging from paying student workers to providing company personnel to serve as program instructors.


Internships Were the Most Common Form of Work-Based Learning

Over 80 percent of proposals included some form of work-based learning, with internships being the most common.


Student Outreach and Support Activities Spanned Learner Journey

Proposals included multiple activities focused on supporting students throughout the education-to-work journey. As referenced in the Employer Commitments table above, many proposals included commitments from employers to provide resources and support to students. For example, employers committed to contributing financial support for students through tuition assistance (25 percent of proposals) or paying students participating in training or work-based learning (almost half of proposals), while more than half of proposals included employer commitments to mentor students.



Measurement Plans Included Enrollment, Completion, and Career Outcomes

A variety of metrics were provided to measure the success of the community college and employer partnership including enrollment, completion, job placement, and wages earned.



This overview of proposals submitted to Strada’s Employer and Community College Partnership Challenge shows the range of commitments and activities that come into play when employers and community colleges work together to support students’ career development. From the 109 proposals submitted to the challenge, 65 met the requirements for partnership components outlined in the request for proposals. These 65 proposals demonstrate various ways in which community colleges and employers can collaborate to develop their region’s talent pipeline.

While this analysis doesn’t address the effectiveness of various partnership components, we can see instances of collaboration that have the potential to create enhanced opportunities and experiences for students. With three-quarters of proposals including efforts to align curricula with employer priorities, and 80 percent of proposals including an employer commitment to providing work-based learning opportunities, it is possible to envision a more seamless and integrated experience for students navigating between education and work. Likewise, given that two-thirds of proposals include guidance and advising, and half of proposals involve employer-provided mentoring, key pieces are in place at many community colleges to provide students with a continuous experience of support that accompanies them from their institution into the workforce.

In sharing responsibility for educating and advancing their local workforce, community colleges and employers also have the opportunity to share resources, services, and expertise. As the Employer and Community College Partnership Challenge continues, we look forward to learning alongside the 11 grantees to understand more about the challenges and opportunities presented by these partnerships, and what impact their collaboration has on the students they serve.



Elaine W. Leigh, Ph.D.

Natasha Jankowski, Ph.D.

Melissa Leavitt, Ph.D.

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