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When It Comes to Building College Programs, Money Talks. Loudly.

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I was in New York on Monday visiting journalism schools to determine if there were some best practices I could take back to Morgan State University, where I currently work.

As a small, public university with fewer of the resources of many major institutions, Morgan has done a remarkable job with less, but it became quickly apparent yesterday that it is not a path on which the university, generally, and the School of Global Journalism & Communication, where I work, can remain.

At one institution in particular, a public university, there was a wall that listed founding partners and sponsors. As I looked at the individual names and institutions, at the equipment, at the relationships the program built in just a few years, it became obvious that money makes the difference.

As the economy continues to inch back, there is a growing movement that contends that money doesn’t always make things better. Money may not solve everything, but it certainly takes a lot of basic concerns off the table and affords scholars, planners, managers the opportunity to think more critically and deeper about building stronger programs.

After floating a trial balloon, the Obama administration is pushing its proposals aimed at making college more affordable and academic institutions more accountable, as soon as the 2015-2016 school year.

As I have said before, it is a laudable goal, but taking money away from colleges and universities in an effort to address chronic challenges may not be the answer.

The administration is considering a rating system that rewards schools based on graduation rates, the percentage of lower-income students who attend the institution, the level of debt graduates leave school with, and what they earn in their first jobs. Those results would be compared against their peer institutions.

Many small, public colleges and universities are educating working students, many of whom drop out for a semester or more to earn money to come back and complete their degrees. These schools don’t have large endowments to provide abundant scholarship money so that students can concentrate full time on their education. Sometimes these schools don’t have enough money to keep up with the latest changes in technology and equipment. And while smartphone technology is wonderful, for example, it is not the only technology that communications students need to succeed.

A program that provides a physical space that encourages collaboration and has enough equipment and access to it—which means having paid staff to sign out, repair and order replacements for that equipment, and a schedule that makes it easy to get to the equipment—seems like a no brainer, but many programs are forced to do without.

Equipment is expensive. So when a program orders some, there is much consideration about how forward-thinking one can afford to be; knowing that even if the technology takes a quantum leap in six months to a year, that it may be 2-3 years, or longer, before replacements can be purchased.

Having partners who are willing to invest in the cause and provide the necessary tools to help ensure success are critical to every program. There is only so much that inspired leadership can do.

New York is the media capital. There are plenty of companies and individuals who helped build traditional media and are willing to help support institutions in their cities. As a result, there are several stellar programs that pay faculty well, invest in their development and provide students with no excuse for failure.

Many institutions don’t have access to that kind of money.

A lot of programs do exemplary work with less, but they could be crushed under the weight of increasing demands and shrinking resources. The thin line that the administration faces in pushing forward its plan is that many who have the talent and will to succeed may not get the chance to prove it.

Currently, most of the $150 billion in student aid doled out by the feds annually is based on the number of students enrolled at a college or university. Graduation rates are not considered. Under Obama’s proposal, colleges would be compared to institutions with similar missions, instead of across the board, but still, higher-ranked schools would get a larger share of those funds.

Community colleges, small land-grant institutions and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which often take the students who come from lower performing rural and inner-city high schools, who tend to have lower SAT and ACT scores and who often don’t graduate in four to six years, could still be hit hard simply because a line will have to be drawn somewhere as the government figures out how to distribute its own limited resources.

As I stared at the wall, I wondered who could be our founding partners and sponsors, who would be willing to invest in a program – very different from the ones from which they may have graduated – and take a chance on creating something brand new.

Certainly, reaching out to alumni is one place to start, but it also is going to take community institutions and businesses and philanthropic organizations, donations big and small, professional volunteers and in-kind programs and services to make a difference.

Money talks. Loudly.

Government will help, to a point, but it is likely to be at a smaller level than in years past. It is going to take broad-based community organizing to get behind these programs and build that wall of support.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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