The students get it.

When times get tough, college enrollments go up. University of Northern Iowa president Ben Allen reminded our editorial board of that fact during an encouraging meeting Thursday.

The economy forces students to consider new alternatives and take action right now.

UNI is among our region’s schools reporting higher enrollment, with plans to grow even more. Augustana College and St. Ambrose University are in the midst of planned enrollment expansion. Our community colleges reported a second consecutive year of enrollment growth. Ashford University and our other private, for-profit colleges are reporting the same.

The path to growth at UNI and elsewhere involves strategic partnerships. UNI’s Allen and Vice President Gloria Gibson were in the Quad-Cities to ink an articulation agreement with Eastern Iowa Community College. Now Quad-City students can be assured their community college start can lead to a UNI finish.

Augustana’s education department reached out to Rock Island schools. St. Ambrose is partnering with Genesis for advanced physical and occupational therapy programs. And Western Illinois University’s Q-C expansion fostered partnerships everywhere.

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This contemporary academic and economic environment needs to influence all levels of education, especially our public elementary and high school districts. Our school districts already enjoy the benefits of existing civic and business partnerships. The area for growth, as demonstrated by these colleges, is for programmatic and curriculum partnerships.

Davenport city and school leaders managed an awkward agreement to proceed on federal grant funding for separate programs. The Quad-City Chamber’s effort to influence the the new Davenport superintendent search also seemed less collaborative and more confrontive.

We want to see our elected school boards retain the primary leadership for allocation of education tax dollars, the biggest piece of the property tax pie. So the collaborative leadership must come from school boards. Rather than waiting to assess community initiatives as they arrive, district boards need to seek out collaborators. That includes serious efforts to share resources among districts, establish regional academic specialties that can be made available to all students via the Web.

UNI’s Allen and others have reminded us that collaboration need not be the last resort to deal with dwindling resources. It must be the first tactic to generate growth.