New research: Strategic partnerships in higher education

In today’s highly competitive higher education market, partnerships of all kinds (i.e., employer, inter-institution, intra-institution, vendor, etc.) have stood out as important channels for attracting new students and driving innovation. Given the frequently talked about partnerships between a few notable universities and big brand employers, the idea of cultivating partnerships has taken center stage.

As a team entrusted by our clients with tackling tough challenges like enrollment growth and learner engagement, we explored the concept of partnerships in a recent research collaboration with our own special partner, UPCEA, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. Since 2014, UPCEA and Blackboard have worked together to share new ideas with the education community and to deepen the understanding of industry trends, best practices, and evolving market factors around professional, continuing, and online education.

Our most recent project, offered through a series of research reports, covers topics frequently on the minds of higher education leaders. Specifically, this year’s research—covering partnerships, strategic planning and resources, measuring success, innovation and critical goals and common challenges—includes survey responses from over 250 professional, continuing and online education units at colleges and universities across the U.S. The first in this series offers some deep insights into how higher education leaders are thinking about and leveraging partnerships in their quest for differentiation, innovation, and growth. The full report can be found here, and we welcome your feedback.

Sharing some highlights from the study, we learned a few key concepts related to partnerships today:

  • 54% of respondents felt that some partnerships are important.
  • Community colleges ranked the importance of partnerships the highest among the sectors, with 57% agreeing that partnerships are important.
  • 48% reported that the most common method of partnership involved working with employers to customize or co-design curriculum.
  • Over half of all respondents (55%) reported their universities are pursuing partnerships primarily to strengthen the institution’s presence in the surrounding community.
  • Nearly half (47%) of respondents felt that partnerships provide universities with a more reliable enrollment pipeline of new students.

In our work with higher education clients, we have witnessed that setting up and managing partnerships is no small task. While the rewards can be high, many institutions go into the effort with little to no defined process and leaders are figuring things out one step at a time. There is often no consistent model for success and there is very little standardization across the organization on how any partnership should work. From our experience and view into institutional best practices across the nation, we have identified a few critical steps that help the partnership process go more smoothly:

  • Have standard operating procedures as part of your understanding with the partner. For example, set up a regular cadence of meetings, reports, and shared experiences or content to ensure that everyone is aligned on expectations.
  • Set-up protocols on data sharing and Key Performance Metrics (KPIs). Have identified success metrics that everyone agrees will provide insight into whether you are both achieving your shared goals.
  • Consider hosting shared data in one collaborative location. Determine how data will be sourced and shared through a system such as a CRM or Business Intelligence tool.
  • Check in and monitor the relationship regularly, both at the leadership and coordination levels. Keep communications frequent and ensure that executive sponsors are engaged on both sides.
  • Establish feedback loops and know what both parties are responsible for doing. Provide a mechanism for escalating challenges or problems and offer channels for transparent dialogue.

Once you’re able to establish and manage a new partnership with consistency, you’re likely to enjoy some of the many benefits offered by this important channel.

  • Partners often offer capabilities and resources unlike or simply not found anywhere else within the institution. They have the ability to fill gaps, bring new data and insights, as well as an outside perspective.
  • A student’s ability to build a network, secure hands-on learning, and gain a leg up in the quest for career advancement can be the make-or-break determinant in a candidate’s enrollment decision. Focusing on employer partnerships can become a game-changer in differentiation.
  • While partnerships most certainly play a positive part in strengthening the institution’s role in the community, when done well, partnerships can have a direct and material impact on enrollment growth. The return on investment can prove the time and effort to be well worth it.

Find out more by reading the full partnerships report and stay tuned for our forthcoming research reports on additional hot topics:

  • Strategic Planning and Resources
  • Measuring Success
  • Critical Goals and Common Challenges
  • Innovation

The Student Services team brings expertise and experience in navigating the opportunities related to establishing partnerships of all kinds. We can offer consultative and hands-on help identifying the best partnerships for your organization, providing best practice in governance and operating procedures, as well as developing outreach plans to potential partner contacts. To learn more, visit our website.

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