A research project Southern Oregon University graduate students performed for a Medford plywood mill is precisely the kind of public-private partnership that can boost local businesses while offering students real-world experience. It's also one reason why the business community should strongly support the higher education system.

Every fall, SOU's masters of business administration program solicits proposals from businesses that need detailed research and analysis — and hope to be chosen to get it for free. Six finalists are chosen to present their project requests to the university's Business Research 519 class.

Students listen to the presentations and pick one to work on. This year, they chose a project for Timber Products, a wood products manufacturer with more than 1,000 employees. The company wanted an analysis of its safety culture and how that relates to on-the-job injuries. The project involved surveying hundreds of Timber Products employees, analyzing the data and preparing recommendations.

The company could have hired a consulting firm, but the cost would have been significant. This way, it got the work done for free, and the students gained invaluable experience and insight.

This year's project was the one of the biggest ever undertaken by a class at SOU, and the Timber Products management team was impressed with the quality of the students' work.

Companies that benefit from this type of project and other partnerships with community colleges and universities can show their appreciation by supporting improved state support for higher education — and by hiring the graduates of that system when their studies are complete.