GRAND RAPIDS — The downtown Grand Rapids landscape holds several examples of how far the educational offerings within the region have grown over the past decade.
In the not too distant past, Kendall College, Davenport University, Grand Rapids Junior College (now Grand Rapids Community College) and a Grand Valley State University downtown extension were the only higher education options available here.
Now, however, Ferris State University, Western Michigan University and Michigan State University have all joined the fray, many through a variety of partnerships with the established institutions.
This is just one example of how West Michigan’s universities and colleges are reaching more students — through partnerships and pooling resources, many times forsaking competition for cooperation.
“I think there is a tendency to not see that, because that isn’t a piece that gets a lot of attention,” said David Eisler, FSU president. “But there are a lot of cooperative relationships that we all have. And in a time of scarce resources, it helps to be able to meet more student needs.”
FSU is perhaps Michigan’s best example of cooperation within the education community. Through a variety of partnerships, Ferris has extended its reach from as far north as Traverse City to as far south as Dowagiac, while maintaining its Big Rapids identity and establishing a strong presence in Grand Rapids.
“Our story in Grand Rapids is a story of partnerships,” Eisler said.
Beginning with the Applied Technology Center at Grand Rapids Community College, Ferris was able to establish a campus in downtown Grand Rapids, housing GRCC and Ferris students in the same facility. Since then, Ferris has risen from GRCC’s fifth most popular transfer destination to its second.
A merger with Kendall College of Art and Design gave Ferris even greater penetration into the market, and through one of the city’s oldest and most prestigious educational institutions. That relationship also provided an instant impact for Kendall — where enrollment had been suffering — with expanded and enhanced academic programs, dramatic new facilities, a new student gallery, technology and capital funding.
Kendall’s enrollment rose by a third over the next five years.
With the success of the GRCC partnership, Ferris further expanded its reach with programs involving other two-year colleges. An articulation agreement with Northwestern Michigan University’s Great Lakes Maritime Academy reached fruition this year with the graduation of the first joint class. Students were awarded a bachelor’s from Ferris and an associate’s from the academy concurrently, with all classes taken in Traverse City.
Ferris offers 27 different away from Big Rapids, with several of those designed to serve isolated communities such as Traverse City. Partnerships with Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac and Niles and Westshore Community College in Ludington, among others, have helped make four-year degrees accessible to communities distant from higher education opportunities.
“These partnerships enable us to provide services in a place that isn’t as highly populated as Grand Rapids,” said Roberta Teahen, dean of Ferris’ Center for Extended Learning. “People are recognizing the importance of education for success.”
Ferris has also established a hospitality certification program centered on casino management for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians and is working with Montcalm Community College and Michigan Works to develop a program to retrain displaced Electrolux workers in Greenville.
GRCC, meanwhile, has established partnerships with several universities at dozens of different levels to better serve its students.
“The reason we work to maintain and build partnerships is to enable our students to make transitions easier into the next phase of their academic lives,” GRCC Provost Velvie Green said. “We want to avoid duplication of resources — pool our resources to make students’ lives as easy as possible.”
Like Ferris, much of GRCC’s efforts have been in keeping students within their hometowns. Through agreements with Davenport University, Spring Arbor College and Northwood University, as well as concurrent enrollment with GVSU and Ferris, GRCC students are able to stay in the Grand Rapids area longer and with less expense.
“A lot of people go to community college because they don’t want to leave their community or because the tuition rates are lower than options otherwise,” Green said. “They have families, jobs — they are committed to the community. We work with the other institution to allow them to remain in their own community as long as possible.”
Through GRCC’s Thompson M-TEC in Holland — built through a partnership with the Ottawa Intermediate School District — and the Careerline Tech Center across the street, GRCC is able to serve many Ottawa County students close to home.
GRCC has offered a number of general education courses at Careerline for several years, but this year it added general education classes at the M-TEC. The increase in the number of classes in Holland will alleviate burdens on the downtown campus in terms of traffic, while cutting the students’ commute.
The most exciting educational expansions to come may revolve largely around the growing Grand Rapids health-care community, especially with the possible arrival of the MSU medical school.
“I’m hopeful that Michigan State’s medical school works out here,” GVSU president Mark Murray said. “I think it would be a great asset to our community. But in terms of our future, we’re primarily focused on our Center for Health Sciences and to see all those programs strengthened.”
“It’s a grand concept we all want to assist in,” Eisler said. “But it’s too early to tell what those relationships will be at this point.”
Western Michigan University has worked hard to keep its undergraduate programs in Kalamazoo, but its graduate programs have flourished in Grand Rapids.
With two campuses in Grand Rapids, WMU recently partnered with Lansing’s Cooley Law School to bring the first full law degree program to Grand Rapids.
At the same time, GVSU formed a partnership with Michigan State and MSU-DCL Law School to form the Legal Education Institute of West Michigan. Although offering different services, the similarity between the two initiatives angered some of the GVSU administration.
“Now we’re trying to build greater partnerships, for instance with the Van Andel Institute,” WMU president Judy Bailey said. “I do not want to duplicate what Grand Valley is already doing, or what they have historically done.
“I’m really looking more at research-commercialization partnerships than I am, at this moment, the next academic partner.”
WMU also hosts Ferris’ pharmacy program in Kalamazoo.
Calvin College and Hope College have formed a number of programs together in recent years, many of which have grown into separate entities. The nursing program was recently split into two separate offerings, while the joint dining service operation, Creative Dining Service, has expanded past both colleges into a company serving seven states.