Colleges combine forces to build Southern Oregon's economy

On a postcard-worthy fall day about a year ago at the Green Springs Inn — appropriately about halfway between Klamath Falls and Ashland — an idea began to germinate: Southern Oregon’s public colleges and universities could pool assets to address some of our region’s biggest issues.

By the end of our meeting, the presidents of our region’s four colleges and universities had begun to lay out a vision that puts students and communities first. Our premise: When big problems need to be solved, big ideas, big actions and big hearts need to step up. History shows that complex problems are best solved from a united front of invested stakeholders with a synergistic approach and a commitment to collaborate.

In this spirit, Klamath Community College, Oregon Institute of Technology, Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University announced last Thursday the formation of the Southern Oregon Higher Education Consortium. We want to prompt discussion about what kind of growth and workforce development is wanted and needed in our region, and how higher education can best act, adapt and align to meet those needs across our institutions.

Our institutions see an opportunity to custom-build our regional workforce to strengthen and diversify the Southern Oregon economy. This requires the intentional development of a highly skilled, home-grown workforce — one that is educated, trained and retained right here in our region, using our campuses’ high-quality programs.

Combined, our four public colleges and universities are a workforce preparation powerhouse: In 2017-’18 more than 26,600 students were enrolled in almost 200 high-demand degree programs, and in more than 100 certificate and apprenticeship programs. These students — future leaders in our region — are learning on the job in professional practice experiences such as providing therapy to autistic children, producing components in high-tech fabrication plants, managing major agricultural operations and delivering high-quality health care in rural settings. Last year alone, our four institutions produced nearly 3,370 graduates and thousands of others with skills training, now practicing as engineers, computer scientists, teachers, medical technicians, police officers, outdoor recreation entrepreneurs and a spectrum of other professionals.

The consortium’s production of talent is a critically important driver of health and growth, educating Southern Oregon’s workforce and powering the regional economy. Together, we represent a $570 million annual economic footprint, and garner annual state investments of almost $68 million. Graduates of our four institutions also bring economic returns, including much-needed tax revenues on average professional salaries that range from $33,000 to $68,000 five years out from graduation.

Yet there are still too few residents with the education they need to fully supply the needs of Southern Oregon businesses and industries. Many of our young people ages 16-24 are considered “disconnected” — they are neither in school nor working. This includes about one-fifth of our teens and young adults in each of Klamath, Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties. Fewer than 20 percent of residents in Klamath, Josephine and Douglas counties earn bachelor’s or advanced degrees, compared with the statewide rate of 31 percent.

As their presidents, we believe our region’s colleges and universities can provide a strong, unified voice, advocating for higher education and workforce priorities for Southern Oregon and helping to address our region’s challenges. Our consortium will mine new opportunities — working with K-12 schools, state legislators, members of Congress, philanthropy and industry — to attract new resources that will fuel regional success. That includes academic programs tailored to the changing requirements of our students and communities.

Let us collectively ensure that Southern Oregon residents don’t just survive — they thrive, and can help realize the potential of our regional economy. We are committed to fortifying Southern Oregon’s workforce and look forward to joining forces across sectors to help build a better place for all residents, in this unique, beautiful region that we call home.

Roberto Gutierrez is president of KCC; Cathy Kemper-Pelle is president of RCC; Nagi Naganathan is president of Oregon Tech; and Linda Schott is president of SOU.

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