Applying the Principles of Non-Profit/For-Profit Partnerships to Degree Programs

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In a previous post, we suggested three principles that universities should consider before they partnered with an external for-profit company.

The principles we suggested are:

  1. When the function is tangential to the core mission.
  2. When the necessary expertise is too specialized to create in-house.
  3. When it is impossible to go up an institutional learning curve alone

While there are always exceptions to any rule, we think these principles may be useful as colleges and universities determine about entering into non-profit/for-profit partnerships.

Despite this, we know one of the primary drivers for these partnerships, particularly when it comes to developing online programs, is profit.

We think this is a mistake.

Revenue is an enabler of institutional goals and a necessary consideration, but key decisions about core capacities should not be driven primarily by considerations of money.

The pursuit of short-term profits can, in fact, obscure the need for long-term investments that are necessary for institutional resilience and mission-related impact.

The focus on the long-term mission instead of short-term revenues is especially important when partnership decisions involve the development and running of degree programs.

As colleges and universities look towards our post-pandemic future, one reality that has become absolutely clear over the past eighteen months is the necessity to build institutional capacity in digitally mediated teaching and learning.

Expertise in educational delivery beyond traditional face-to-face and residential modalities is now a university necessity.

Future pandemics (or new variants of COVID-19) may again force schools to rapidly move to virtual learning. Extreme weather events caused by global climate change may disrupt residential campus operations.  Colleges and universities need to be able to keep teaching and learning in instances when professors and students cannot, or should not, gather together on campus.

Even conceptualizing higher education as either residential or remote advances a false dichotomy, one no longer appropriate to how we learn, teach, and work. No college course going forward will be totally residential. All courses will incorporate some digital components and virtual interactions, even those courses scheduled to be taught in physical classrooms.

An institutional strategy that is not built around building a core capacity for digital learning will be inherently shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating.

University partnerships with for-profit companies that cannibalize internal investments in digital learning capacity will carry the unintended consequence of destabilizing long-term institutional agility and resiliency.

None of this is to say that colleges and universities should never work with for-profit companies. There are always exceptions.

We simply think it’s important to make these decisions in the context of shoring up the core capacities of the institution.