Meeting Needs Through Middle College

By Sarah Asp Olson

Grand Rapids Community College has an industry partner with its latest Middle College program.

Middle College programs, which allow qualified high school students to simultaneously work toward a diploma and a certificate or associate degree by completing a 13th year of high school, have been a big win for students, colleges and industry partners across the country.

That’s certainly been the case for Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC), in Michigan. GRCC is poised to launch its third Middle College program this fall, the first with a corporate collaborator.

“For the students, [Middle College] is about opportunity,” says Daniel Clark, dean of academic outreach at GRCC. “Opportunity to take college courses and not incur debt; opportunity to do an internship at a local corporation with the possibility of full-time employment.”

And the partnerships are worthwhile ventures for the institutions involved. “So often, the educational systems work alone in their own silos,” Clark says. “A Middle College program brings about partnerships that work together on the educational and employment outcomes all at the same time.”

 A look at GRCC’s Middle College programs

GRCC’s first Middle College program launched in the fall of 2012 with Wyoming Public Schools (WPS). Then, in the fall of 2014, the college created another program with the more rural Cedar Springs Public Schools. The first WPS cohort will graduate this spring with Associate of Arts degrees.

“Because it’s an associate degree, it’s more of a transfer program and not a workforce development program,” says Clark, referring to the WPS Middle College program. “That is the same with our second Middle College program with Cedar Springs.”

Of the 29 students slated to graduate this year, 25 plan to transfer to four-year institutions. Between the two programs, GRCC currently has 250 participants — from sophomores to students in their final year.

When GRCC began conversations with officials from the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (OAISD) about starting a Middle College program for their students, “their interest was in providing a Middle College experience that would be more workforce oriented,” Clark says. Once furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, which is headquartered in Ottawa County, joined the conversation, “we started the planning process.”

This fall, nine high school juniors from OAISD will begin working toward an Industrial Maintenance Certificate from GRCC while also getting on-the-job experience through paid internships with Herman Miller.

“For Herman Miller, this is another way for them [to develop] talent or meet that talent-pool need,” Clark says. “Ultimately their goal is to hire students for their corporation.”

Advice for others

Clark highlights three key lessons GRCC has learned in creating its three Middle College programs:

  1. Have a clear vision and purpose for partnerships — and be up front about it. “It’s important from our standpoint that when we partner with a school district, we’re not there to discontinue their AP programs or limit their AP programs,” he says. “We’re there to provide college courses for students who may not be getting into AP or being very successful with that.”
  2. Meet students where they are initially. Some Middle College high school students travel to campus for classes. GRCC’s full-time and adjunct faculty also go to the high schools to teach. Once students enter the 13th year, they finish their coursework on GRCC’s campus.
  3. Offer support along the way. Regardless of where students are taking classes, college counselors and tutors from GRCC offer help with everything from current coursework to career and college choices down the line. “You have students who don’t have cars, can’t drive, so we decided to fix that by sending support services right [to them],” Clark says.
Sarah Asp Olson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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