July 14th, 2009

Can Corporate Funding Save Endangered College Classes?

By Steven Gray
Time

The nation’s economic crisis is forcing schools to take unprecedented steps to survive: laying off teachers, cutting bus services, eliminating summer classes. But more drastic measures may not be far off. Could the next step in saving American education be Introduction to Nutrition, Sponsored by McDonald’s or PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Financial Accounting 101?

Don’t laugh. The City College of San Francisco is considering selling the naming rights to nearly 800 endangered classes. The 105,000-student institution gets most of its funding from the state government, which is grappling with an estimated $27 billion budget deficit. The school has already imposed a freeze on new hires and cost-of-living adjustments to employees’ salaries. Faced with an estimated $25 million budget deficit, the school’s chancellor, Don Griffin, has proposed eliminating 800 of the school’s roughly 9,800 classes for this fall. Last month, however, he proposed a novel potential solution: saving the classes with corporate sponsorships of up to $6,000 per semester. (See TIME’s special report on paying for college.)

So far, the reaction in San Francisco has been mixed. Some officials at the college view the proposal as unseemly, but acknowledge its potential practicality in the absence of sufficient government funding. “We have to go after private money, but in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise our values or let the public sector off the hook,” says Milton Marks, president of the college’s board, which is expected to review a formal proposal later this month.

Even if corporations can be enlisted in the plan, there may not be enough time to save any classes for this fall. But the proposal has got some teachers thinking. Fred Chavaria, chair of the college’s Administration of Justice and Fire Science department, expects four of his classes to be cancelled this fall. He is considering approaching local firemen and police officers’ associations hardly flush with cash to sponsor endangered classes like Concepts of Law and Terrorism & Counterterrorism. “We’re in a crisis,” he says, while adding, “I’m not going to take anything from a gun manufacturer.” (Read “Can Charter-School Execs Help Failing Public Schools?")

Many schools, of course, have long used corporate partnerships to finance buildings and other facilities. From Fargo, N.D., to Worchester, Mass., banks and other companies have bought the naming rights to public libraries and high school football fields. The University of Wisconsin at Madison offers doctors and other health-care professionals an online continuing-education course on menstrual disorders that is funded by the pharmaceutical giant Bayer. While the class’s title doesn’t carry Bayer’s name, the company’s drugs are mentioned in the course, and the school fully acknowledges the arrangement in course materials.

One school that has been especially aggressive in corporate sponsorships is Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. Shortly after taking over as Piedmont’s president in the early 1990s, Tony Zeiss faced a budget crisis. “You either figure out how to generate alternative revenue streams, or complain,” he recalls thinking. “We decided to become entrepreneurial.” He sold the naming rights to laboratories, buildings and eventually four of the school’s six campuses. Then he sold the naming rights to individual classes. But it became less time consuming and more profitable to solicit sponsorships for entire academic programs. One result: the Christa A. Overcash Associate Degree Nursing Program. The program works mainly off the interest from the former nurse’s initial $500,000 investment. Sponsors “don’t get that involved” in shaping the curriculum, says Zeiss, because “we have our own accrediting standards.” In recent months, Zeiss has announced other joint ventures with local companies. The results: Introduction to Motorsports Pit Crews, Pit Crew U and the Cox Schepp Construction Academy. So far, the San Francisco proposal doesn’t appear to have generated serious corporate interest.

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