University corporate partnerships are on the rise, but we are nearing a time when more people will realize that the higher education credentialing emperor has no clothes. Credentials still play an important role in society, and I expect them to continue to play such a role. At the same time, the cost of demonstrating competence by earning an academic credential is substantial, and there are oftentimes unusual (to the rest of the world) and unreasonable (again, to the rest of the world) hoops through which one must jump to reach competence and earn the credential. The more the connected world amplifies the message that there are other pathways to learning, the more organizations will wake up to the awareness that colleges are not their only source or option when it comes to equipping their employees with world-class education that will ultimately help the company achieve business goals. When that happens, Universities pursuing partnerships will need to have two critical elements in place (keep reading to find out about those elements).
Types of University Corporate Partnerships
I’ve written in the past about the promise and possibility (not to mention the risk and limitations) of University partnerships with corporations. This has, in some instances, been an intriguing way to address the cost of ongoing education, not to mention a great perk at some companies. However, there are many different types of partnerships. The well-known ASU / Starbucks partnership is not really about ASU helping Starbucks get better trained, better education employees, at least not according to the words of the Starbucks CEO. It might achieve this goal indirectly by likely increasing employee loyalty and satisfaction, maybe even improving the pool of applicants for jobs at Starbucks. However, the idea behind the partnership was not focused on something specific like paying for employees to get MBAs so they are better equipped for promotions into leadership positions. What I’m referring to in this article are the instances where companies do seek such a direct benefit.
For any partnership to work, both parties need to get something desirable out of it. If a University is partnering as a means of marketing and recruiting students, that benefit is easily measurable. What about on the company side? If the benefit for the company is to take good care of employees and add an extra HR perk that builds loyalty and maybe serves as a recruitment tool (We help cover ___% of ongoing education, and even more if you go to ___________.), that is fine. However, if it is actually about the education that employees receive, namely equipping the employees to improve the quality of their work or be equipped for a future role, this is where I come back to the idea of an academic emperor parading around naked, thinking he has clothes on.
I’m referring to instances where Universities mistakenly think that their credential is what really matters, not the education. I noticed a recent University of Phoenix advertisement where a person is commending another on her work, noting that she was prime for a promotion. As he encourages her, he asks, “You do have your MBA, don’t you?” The suggestion is clear. If you don’t have an MBA, your chances at the promotion are slim to none. Some companies function that way, but the best ones don’t. They ultimately care about competence more than credentials. Who cares if you have an MBA if you can’t deliver on job? Ideally, maybe that want someone with the credential and the competence, but in the end, companies that value results want people who can deliver.
Two Essential Elements for University Corporate Partnerships
This is where Universities seeking out such corporate partnerships need to engage in some serious introspection. If I am coming to a partnership with a company, it isn’t the MBA that I am offering, it is the ability to mentor, coach, train, and educate people in way that is needed by that company. As such, that University will be held accountable for the results, which already happen anecdotally when we hear statements like, “Don’t hire graduates of ________ because they can’t do the job well.”
As I see it, this ultimately comes down to two things for Universities. First, it is about ensuring outcomes that align with the goals and needs of the partnership company. Second, it is about being relentless and serious about faculty talent management. With regard to the first, I can’t get away with outdated syllabi and theoretical courses that don’t help people understand how it applies in real world contexts. I need to be fully committed to a relevant, current, rigorous, world-class curriculum. The same it true for the faculty. I need to have world-class faculty, the type of people that those partnering companies would love to hire as leaders or consultants in a given area. The company is coming to the University to get something that they don’t have. If it is just the “license” to issue credentials, that will only cut it in the most regulated of industries. In the rest, it needs to be about the University brining top talent to the partnership, providing a value not easily obtained by the company without the partnership. Ignoring this can work for a time, but I’m convinced that it will backfire over time.
Paying attention to these two items will accomplish the following:
- It will put clothes back on that proud but naked higher education emperor.
- It will create an authentic and mutually beneficial partnership.
- It will build a higher education community that dispels concerns about the value of higher education today.
- It will help professional programs in Universities stay sharp, current, and providing the type of education that people need and want.
- It will also protect such programs in Universities from falling into the dangerous trap of believing that its credentials are its greatest value, because if credentials are its greatest value, then that is a sure sign that this program is just a new spin on a the classic diploma mill.
Credentials matter and probably always will, but academic credentials are most valuable when they signify true competence. The best way to do that is by having a great curriculum and top faculty talent.