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Making Public-Private Partnerships Work in Higher Education

SXSWedu was a great place to see that leaders of educational innovation come from every part of the ecosystem and that they are increasingly working together to improve educational outcomes.
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Last week's SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas was a great place to see all of the tensions in education on display. Disruption versus reform. For-profit versus not-for-profit. Teachers versus CEO's. But it was also a great place to see that leaders of educational innovation come from every part of the ecosystem -- teachers, professors, entrepreneurs, administrators, industry executives, and even students themselves -- and that they are increasingly working together to improve educational outcomes.

In one of my more memorable encounters, I watched as one aspiring entrepreneur looking to sell new educational services to school districts got some good advice from his more experienced counterparts. They told him, metaphorically, that if you say you want to "burn down the village," the people in the village aren't likely to welcome you with open arms. In a panel on Making Public-Private Partnerships Work, I joined a discussion with three other experienced educational leaders to talk about what to do when you don't want to burn down the village, but rather lead significant change across public and private organizations.

There are three takeaways from that discussion that I think are helpful for anyone thinking about large-scale education reform.

1. Recognize the changing environment

My fellow panelist Brian Kibby, President of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, told the story of meeting with a university president in 2011. With 20 years in the education and textbook business, Brian has had a lot of these meetings and was used to a certain customer-vendor dynamic. What stood out to Brian about this meeting was the emphasis this university president was putting on her problems with student success. Moreover, she was looking very explicitly for new ways to work with companies like McGraw-Hill to truly partner to address her problems.

The story highlights what many of us in higher education are experiencing. The challenges faced by students reflected in graduation rates (which average 53 percent nationwide and are much worse for first generation college students) and career outcomes (with 50 percent of recent graduates unemployed or underemployed) are driving a new environment for innovative solutions at all types of higher education institutions.

The university president Kibby mentioned provides a good model for all institutional leaders. Invite the commercial partners in and challenge them to provide real solutions. And for private companies, be prepared to provide something different than your traditional products and services or be relegated to the "vendor" category while others partner successfully.

2. Synchronize your goals

It is often said that good partnerships require the parties to have "shared goals." In his panel comments, Mark David Milliron, Chancellor of Western Governor's University-Texas, introduced an important refinement to that idea when it comes to public private partnerships. Mark encouraged all of us to recognize that it is very hard for public and private institutions to truly have "shared goals," and that instead we should make sure we have a strong emphasis on "synchronized goals."

Those working in successful partnerships will recognize the two key aspects of synchronized goals. The first aspect is the ability to understand the goals of the other party and the "language" used to articulate those goals. Language can be a tricky thing across public and private conversations, and listening and digesting will help each party to understand how their goals are complementary.

The second and more difficult part of synchronizing goals is the ongoing process of assessing the partnership's performance and adjusting the strategies to make sure that both groups still feel on track towards success. Mark and Brian both cited this ongoing tuning as a key element of success for the unique course materials partnership between McGraw Hill and WGU.

3. Make it core

When asked to describe the difference between a "vendor" and "partner" relationship with a commercial provider, John Hayek, Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief of Staff for Academic Affairs, University of Texas System, answered very succinctly that real partnerships are created when a university decides to make something "core."

In choosing partners, business development professionals often look for strong, public commitment to the success of a partnership -- the proverbial skin in the game. For public education institutions, this type of commitment comes when a partner's product or service is integrated into the teaching mission of the university, making it core to the institution's success.

Private companies engaged in this kind of partnership with public institutions will benefit substantially from the broad commitment and engagement from their partners, but they will need to be prepared for what it takes. At MyEdu we meet with students, faculty, advisors, administrators, and career service office professionals from the various University of Texas campuses everyday as part of our partnership with the UT System. That level of engagement is a large investment for a small company, but it is the only way for us to both listen and share what we need to be successful with a core initiative.

In the United States we have built the greatest higher education system in the world as the result of great educators, strong cultural value placed on education, and continuous innovation. We've been able to build this system, in part, because these qualities are not relegated to one sector or another. But rather, all of us in the higher education ecosystem have something to contribute to the overall landscape, and our continued success will depend our ability to work together across both public and private institutions to achieve great results for our students and our society as a whole.