Part 3 of 3

Sustaining Higher Ed is a monthly blog dedicated to helping college administrators and board trustees lead their organizations toward greater financial stability so they can stay on mission during challenging times.

Our last post explored challenges and solutions to integrating adult learning programs within the wider university landscape. In this post—the third and final part of our series on adult learning—we look beyond the university to a wider community of partners that can help build and sustain relevant and engaging adult learning programs.

Before we leave campus, however, it is important to note that internal partnerships—among and between schools and departments—can add tremendous value to an adult learning program. In last month’s post, we noted that an interdisciplinary approach to adult learning can reduce the burdens of a new program on any one department or school and cast a wider net for recruiting talented faculty to the program. In many cases, an interdisciplinary approach will also better serve the needs of the program, which may not fit neatly within the disciplinary parameters of existing academic units.


Looking beyond campus

Beyond campus, there are many potential partners that can provide access to adult learners, enrich curriculum, enhance faculty research, and provide mentoring and networking opportunities to students. Potential external partners include both corporations and community and not-for-profit organizations. These organizations have a common interest in providing ongoing learning and professional development opportunities for their staff; some companies are emphasizing learning opportunities as a benefit to enhance staff recruitment and retention. Many potential partners—especially not-for-profit organizations—have their own programming needs that make colleges and universities attractive partners.

Programs focused on workforce and professional development are likely to depend on participation of units that have a more technical or professional orientation: for example, schools of business, engineering, or law. For faculty, these programs not only enable them to share their research with corporate partners, but also to gain insights on new research possibilities through interactions with corporate leaders and staff. Although these programs may be professional in orientation, many subjects can benefit from the interdisciplinary approach described above that draws faculty from other academic units. A certificate program in consumer behavior, for example, might include faculty from both the marketing department in the business school and the psychology department in the college of arts and sciences. 

Partnerships with not-for-profit organizations, foundations, and community organizations can draw from a broader range of academic units, developing programs around areas of broad public interest and appeal (e.g., a podcast produced in partnership with a public radio station) or building niche programs around areas of faculty expertise for which there is market demand (e.g., science and religion institute days for high-school teachers sponsored in partnership with a private foundation). Although these partnerships may not have the same potential for revenue enhancement as workforce and professional development programs, they provide benefits in helping to fulfill the institution’s mission, building goodwill in the community, and enhancing the institution’s reputation and brand. They can also enhance faculty morale, providing new outlets for sharing research and engaging with the wider community.


Operationalizing partnerships

An effective partnership program requires strategic vision, commitment, and investment.

Strategic vision begins with an assessment of the institution’s current programs and faculty resources and an analysis of market demand for adult learning opportunities. Areas where program strength, faculty expertise, and market demand align form the foundation of an adult learning strategy.

Commitment requires a dedicated group of staff and faculty who are able and willing to do the hard work of building connections and exploring possibilities, with the insights and authority needed to identify and develop opportunities that will be of mutual benefit to the institution and its partners.

Finally, investment requires building the structures that support an effective partnership program. This might include funding an office of external partnerships with the resources necessary to do market research, negotiate partnership agreements, and invest the funds needed to move approved partnerships forward.

Institutions that are investing in a partnership program should also consider the formation of advisory boards that include members of corporate, community, and not-for-profit organizations to provide oversight and advice on program initiatives. Advisory boards have a long history; the University of Chicago, for example, has employed advisory councils (formerly known as “visiting committees”) for nearly 70 years. In recent years, the development of advisory boards has become more widespread, as both institutions and board members recognize their benefits.

For the institution, advisory board members can provide input on curriculum, ensuring that it meets real-world talent and skill needs, offer mentoring and networking support to students, serve as an advocate for the institution and its programs in the community, and even serve as adjunct faculty. For board members, benefits of service include the opportunity to network with other community leaders, further their career development, and give back to the community. Institutions will need to invest additional resources in board management to ensure that the advisory board experience is meaningful to both the institution and the board members: This includes meeting and event planning, board member orientation, preparation of meeting materials, and engagement with board members between meetings. The benefits derived from a well-run advisory board program, however, likely will far outweigh the costs.


Adult learning and institutional transformation

Our first post in this series called on colleges and universities to consider embracing a broader mission to support lifelong learning through a sustained focus on adult learning. By opening the institution up to a more diverse student population, new opportunities for growth, enhanced cooperation across academic units, and greater engagement with community partners, adult learning can indeed help colleges and universities make transformational changes that will put them on a path to greater sustainability in the years ahead.

If you have questions or comments, please email Larenda.

Meet the Author
Larenda Mielke

Larenda Mielke

Vice President
Larenda Mielke is a Vice President in the Higher Education division of Kaufman Hall’s Strategic and Financial Planning practice. She has extensive leadership experience in higher education in the areas of strategy, curriculum and program development, and more.
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