Building Connection and Community: A Reflection on Three Years of Partnership with Complete College America

HERA (Higher Education Regional Alliance) (HERA) is a unique collaborative of public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities, and a network of partner organizations in southeast Wisconsin.  HERA was formed in early 2018, in response to need to build a large and diverse workforce, catalyzed the decision of Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, to locate its manufacturing and innovation campus in the region.  The basic premise….We can achieve more working together!.  The need to do something different as a region and as individual institutions was made even more clear when the 24/7 Wall St. study on quality of life gaps found Milwaukee to be the worst city in the United States for Black Americans, followed by Racine. 

Looking back, the timing of our selection as one of the regions for the ECMC Metro Momentum Pathways project couldn’t have been better. HERA had just identified completion as one of its three strategic priorities, however; it was still planning on how best to approach this issue as a collaborative region. This ECMC project provided both the framework and the accountability we needed to move the work forward. The intentional process used by CCA was essential for momentum and success, which included gathering the data, getting campus leadership buy in, and developing a case statement for the work in the region.  Then HERA’s mission and aims were shared more broadly with colleagues across participating campuses to build a deeper understanding of the problem in our region and the support for and commitment to shared work around a key set of proven best practice strategies.

As you might have guessed, collecting the data was the first step in the process and to be honest, our first attempt did not go as well as we hoped.  We quickly realized that there was a lot of variability in the definitions used for various metrics, how data were used, what data was readily available, and the data resources available on each campus. So, as we moved ahead with the process, we took a step back and really worked to be more intentional in our inclusion of IR folks in our discussions.  This catalyzed the region, but also set up the framework for an accountability structure supported through a public regional dashboard and private institution dashboards. 

By the time of the planning summit, it was hard to deny that the region needed to implement the CCA Game Changer strategies. The next big challenge was the “how”.  At the planning summit, each campus had dedicated time with technical experts to help them think through what implementation could look like at their own institution so that they could begin to move from theory to action.

As our journey has continued, we have developed a shared language across the region and continued to convene as large groups (pre-COVID) and now in our monthly virtual strategy cohort meetings.  Our campuses have made substantial leaps forward and we are significantly closer to scaling these game changer practices across the region. Seventeen of the original eighteen campuses have remained actively engaged and committed to this work.

Equally important, the region has also begun to see and appreciate the value of our collective work and the original premise….We can achieve more working together!.   As evidenced by these two quotes –

“I’m working on balance between short term and long-term needs, and currently feeling tipped to the short-term side.  But today’s conversation helped to bring our strategic work back into focus.  That can be one of the best benefits to working together! “  VP Enrollment Services

“I appreciate that this is a space where we can honestly share struggles, not to receive answers, necessarily, but to open up future dialogue/discussions/paths for research. “ Writing Program Coordinator/Assistant Professor of English