What began as a study of the economic future of Columbus has blossomed into a multi-faceted, collaborative, regional approach to improving quality of life and economic development by promoting educational attainment.

The Community Education Coalition is marking its 20th anniversary this year, and its impact is evident in the programs and facilities that have arisen from its work:

  • Columbus Learning Center: An educational space shared by the higher education institutions in the city.
  • Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence: A facility shared by IUPUC, Ivy Tech and Purdue Polytechnic that contains classrooms, teaching laboratories and services for students seeking education and training in advanced manufacturing and technology career

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  • IU Center for Art + Design: A facility in downtown Columbus that teaches art and design, and was created in partnership with Indiana University.
  • Busy Bees Academy: A prekindergarten program offered by Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.
  • iGrad: A mentoring program to keep at-risk students on track to graduate high school
  • EcO Network of Southeast Indiana: A regional system of learning opportunities that focuses on advanced manufacturing, health care and educational attainment
  • CivicLab: An institute that advances the practice of civic collaboration.

Additionally, the number of degrees offered at the postsecondary educational institutions in Columbus has increased.

“When you look at the original mission of creating a lifelong learning system that connects to employers, we’re doing pretty well,” said John Burnett, president and CEO of the Community Education Coalition.

The beginning

Columbus Economic Development Board in 1996 commissioned The Hudson Institute to examine the future of the economy of Columbus. The report recommended that a strategy focusing on advanced manufacturing would be best for future economic growth.

However, the report also revealed shortcomings. Few postsecondary programs were available in Columbus to connect people to economic opportunities, forcing them to go elsewhere to obtain degrees and skills, Burnett said.

“It was a wakeup call to the community,” Burnett said. “It said you need to invest in higher learning, invest in schools, K through 12, and higher education.”

The next year, the Community Education Coalition was launched with no full-time staff and budget of about $150,000 for each of the first three years, funded by the Columbus Economic Development Board, Cummins, Arvin and Irwin Financial.

That was a modest start compared to current-day staffing and other resources.

Today, the coalition has a staff of 15, including 12 full time, and an annual budget of about $4 million funded by an endowment managed through the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, grants and proceeds from managing the Columbus Learning Center, Burnett said.

During the planning stages of its launch two decades ago, however, The Hudson Institute’s report became the coalition’s playbook.

“Everyone got behind this and worked together,” Burnett said.

Business leaders, school district officials, higher education leaders and other community stakeholders joined forces to connect education and economic opportunities, he said.

The report even suggested creating a manufacturing excellence center — something that came to fruition in Columbus more than a decade later, in 2010.

A big challenge during the first 10 years of the Community Education Coalition was getting Columbus’ higher education institutions aligned with postsecondary needs to aid workforce development, and helping high school students and adults see the opportunities for learning locally, said Jack Hess, executive director of CivicLab.

Initial success included the opening of the Columbus Learning Center in 2005 and approval of new degrees at IUPUC, Ivy Tech and Purdue College of Technology, later renamed Purdue Polytechnic. Some of the additional degrees include:

A Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering

Master of Business Administration

Targeted two- and four-year nursing degrees

Primary focuses of the coalition over the past 10 years have been growing the EcO Network of Southeast Indiana and early learning opportunities, Hess said.

Current challenges

The EcO Network serves 10 southeastern Indiana counties: Bartholomew, Dearborn, Decatur, Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Jennings, Ohio, Ripley and Switzerland.

Among its goals are creating a regional learning system and creating economic opportunities aligned with its strengths: advanced manufacturing and health care.

Thirty percent of the region’s workforce are employed in the well-paying advanced manufacturing sector, and 10 percent have jobs in health care.

But required skill levels keep changing.

“In the 1970s, you didn’t need a high school degree to have a well-paying job,” Burnett said.

However, manufacturing jobs have changed over the past 20 years. And as globalization impacts jobs, more education is needed to land a good-paying job, Burnett said.

That’s a message that the coalition is still working to sell.

Thirty-five percent of students in southeast Indiana don’t go to college their first year out of high school, said Kathy Oren, executive director of the Community Education Coalition.

The EcO Network has to help students, and even adults, understand the importance of higher education, she said.

The Lumina Foundation — a private organization that promotes the importance of education beyond high school — has set a goal of 60 percent of adults having a postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. Currently, 30.6 adults in the EcO Network’s 10-county region have an associate degree or higher. In Columbus alone, the rate is about 42 percent, Burnett said.

Much improvement is needed, however, to reach the 60 percent benchmark.

EcO Network’s work has been aided by $80.7 million leveraged since 2007 from endowments, foundations, nonprofits, the private sector, and state and local governments to support its networks, seamless pathways and labs.

“We try to bring all parties together,” said Stephanie Weber, the EcO regional director for the Manufacturing Network.

Weber noted that all 10 counties in Region 9 now have learning centers.

During the 2016-17 school year, the EcO Network helped more than 4,400 learners enroll in targeted education and employment pathways aligned with priority industry sectors. Of those, 747 received dual/college credit, 769 transitioned to post-secondary education and 1,159 engaged in work-and-learn opportunities, according to EcO Network data.

Kathy Huffman, EcO regional manager for the Attainment Network, previously worked in Jefferson County. Without EcO’s assistance, Jefferson County would have struggled to launch programs that aid educational attainment and improve economic opportunities, she said.

Educational attainment remains the great challenge, Community Education Coalition members said.

Socioeconomic factors are part of the challenge. For example, more than 40 percent of students in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

Socioeconomic factors also can affect the ability of a family to have their children ready for kindergarten when they are at the age to enter that level, Burnett said.

“That’s why early education is so important,” Burnett said.

Foundational process

In all the work the Community Education Coalition and the EcO Network does, the underlying principle for success has been collaboration among stakeholders. The Columbus Learning Center is fruit of such labor.

The collaborative process that has been instrumental to the coalition’s work also is taught broadly through one of its programs, CivicLab. It started five years ago as the Institute for Coalition Building.

The stakeholder engagement process isn’t new in Columbus.

J. Irwin Miller, the late-Cummins chairman and philanthropist, used it to leverage new schools and public buildings, and initiate beneficial community programs, Hess said.

One function of CivicLab is sharing the stakeholder engagement process with communities across the country, to help them achieve solutions to local issues. That involves Hess and Burnett traveling across the country.

The Community Education Coalition’s history provides an example of what can be achieved.

“When you think of the 20 years,” Oren said, “it’s been a 20-year evolution of relationship building and system building.”

Coalition timeline


Columbus Economic Development Board commissioned The Hudson Institute to explore the future of the economy of Columbus. The report recommended a focus on advanced manufacturing as the best strategy for future economic growth.

A task force was created to explore ways for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and post-secondary institutions to work together to improve students achievement and expand post-secondary programs to support the area’s economy. The task force eventually became the Community Education Coalition.


Community Education Coalition founded by the Columbus Economic Development Board, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, community stakeholders, major businesses and educators.


Columbus Learning Center planning begins. A group of more than 500 community members and experts begins development of a plan for a shared learning center.


The Community Education Coalition coordinates a study to quantify community industry, business and other organizations’ most pressing post-secondary education training and degree needs. Among those confirmed were two- and four-year degrees in business (including a Master’s in Business Administration), education, nursing, mechanical engineering/engineering technology and computer technology.


Lilly Endowment Inc. provides a $5 million Community Alliances to Promote Education (CAPE) grant to the Heritage Fund – The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County. The Community Education Coalition and Heritage Fund use the grant to research the county’s most urgent educational needs.


A community fund drive raises $3 million to support expanded programs at local campuses of IUPUC, Ivy Tech and Purdue College of Technology. Degrees created or expanded included: Bachelor of Science in business, mechanical engineering technology and education; Master’s of Business Administration; and targeted two-year nursing degrees.


Columbus Learning Center opens Sept. 16. It is the first shared-use facility in the state across Indiana University, Purdue University, Ivy Tech, Work One and the community. It is owned by the the City of Columbus through the Board of Aviation Commissioners, and operated by the Community Education Coalition.


Work One, Region 9 Workforce Board, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce and the Community Education Coalition partnered to coordinate a study of the economic growth of Region 9’s critical occupation shortages. The Community Education Coalition and Heritage Fund develop a grant proposal known as Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015 — or EcO15.

Economic Opportunities through Education 2015 creates a regional system of lifelong learning for community residents within 10 counties in southeastern Indiana to improve economic opportunities by 2015 and beyond.


EcO15 launches with assistance of a $38 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. The goal is to lift residents of the 10-county region up one level in education or skills.

A national career awareness and recruitment program called “Dream It. Do It.” launches and supports EcO15 manufacturing education strategies.


Early childhood study and planning begins for a three-year pilot program to increase the capacity for childhood offerings in Bartholomew County. The program becomes known as Busy Bees.

A Latino outreach and education program launches to identify and close education gaps facing the growing Latino population.


Busy Bees academies open in the fall with help from the Community Education Coalition and Cummins Inc.

The Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence opens. The $15 million, state-of-the-art, shared facility aligns education, workforce and business development programs to increase productivity and competition of the manufacturing sector in southeast Indiana.

EcO15 network development starts with a focus on advanced manufacturing, health care, tourism and increasing attainment. The $23 million Phase 1 calls for the development of 13 STEM labs, 10 health care labs, STEM curriculum.


IUPUC begins offering a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering degree.

Indiana University partners with the Community Education Coalition to open the IU Center for Art + Design on Oct. 31.


An additional $5 from Lilly Endowment allows the Community Educational Coalition and Heritage Fund to create seamless STEM pathways.


The iGrad program launches after the 2012-13 school year. The three-year pilot program is intended to help at-risk students stay on track to graduate from high school. It’s created by the Community Education Coalition, Ivy Tech, Cummins Inc., Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp.


Indiana Department of Workforce Development awards $1.8 million in a Skill Up! grant to the EcO Network of Southeast Indiana to support the EcO regional networks: advanced manufacturing, health care and attainment.


The Lumina Foundation designates the Community Education Coalition and the EcO Network of Southeast Indiana as a national Talent Hub because of its ability to create environments that attract, retain and cultivate talent.

— Source: educationcoalition.com

About the coalition

What: Community Education Coalition

Where: Based in Columbus

When: Founded in 1997

Why: Partnership of businesses, education and community leaders to align and integrating community learning systems, economic development and quality of life

How: Promote value and importance of a seamless learning system that offers accessible, affordable education for students of all ages. Serve as a catalyst for establishing Columbus as a regional center for higher education and workforce development. Foster a strong link between economic development and education initiatives.

Website: educationcoalition.com

About EcO

What: Economic Opportunities through Education (EcO) Network of Southeast Indiana

When: Started 2007

Where: Initiative of Columbus-based Community Education Coalition, it serves 10 counties: Bartholomew, Dearborn, Decatur, Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Jennings, Ohio, Ripley and Switzerland.

Why: To create a system of lifelong learning for residents of the 10 counties

How: Move residents up at least one level in education, training or job placement; coordinate and align a regional learning system; be a catalyst for regional leadership and collaboration

Source: educationcoalition.com

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.