Time for Higher Ed Partnerships to 'Prove it'

Recently, my organization, College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, has been getting a fair amount of press about our recently announced partnership with Anthem, Inc.: Accredited college degree programs for 50,000 eligible workers, at no cost, if they want it.

While we are proud to be in the vanguard of what we feel is a new model for higher education, we are not alone. Arizona State University has teamed with Starbucks and Strayer University with Chrysler, among others, to form new kinds of business-higher education partnerships.

It wasn't long after these new partnerships formed that we were already getting the "brush off": "What is new? Companies have been offering tuition assistance and partnering with colleges and universities for years."

What is new about these partnerships is that companies are now actively invested in shaping the educational offerings supported by their tuition assistance programs -- both in what is offered and how it is made available to employees. Employers are now realizing they need to be more involved in the process.

Today's best business-education partnerships are tailored to help employees grow to be more effective workers, thereby enabling companies to invest directly and actively in their workforce.

What is also new is that just a couple of years ago, a partnership such as ours with Anthem would have been an interesting anomaly and quickly forgotten. But the sheer volume of articles and interest from a growing number of other companies show that employer-supported and directed education in non-traditional formats has moved from quaint and curious to serious and significant.

It is new. It is growing. So now the hard part: We need to show that it really works.

Our first challenge is making sure these new partnerships present an attractive value proposition to workers. One problem with the previous model of subsidized education was that, frequently, workers did not take full advantage of the investment their companies were willing to make. One measure of a good program is whether or not it is actually used.

Early evidence suggests that more employer engagement can spur enrollment. College for America recently commissioned a study of workers that showed that 72 percent of employees would be more interested in a college that partners with their employer. And Anthem, for example, has had more employees express interest in its tuition reimbursement program with the announcement of the College for America opportunity than ever before.

The second challenge is perhaps more important: Defining success and setting measurable, relevant criteria to establish if success is reached. The onus is on these new partnerships to prove value. These new corporate partnerships are going to vary according to the programming offered and funding model. Therefore, each partnership will have to define how its success is measured.

At College for America, we have two types of metrics. The first is student-focused: pace of mastery, time to degree, graduation rates, and impact on career.

The second is employer-focused: retention, promotion, and employee and employer satisfaction.

Our partnership with Anthem is in its early days and goals will be revised as the first students make their way through the program. But we are acutely aware that the only way to grow this new education model is to have verifiable data.

One of the benefits of the employer engagement is that we are serving a core business interest--workforce development. This is not merely education for education's sake, and we look forward to being held to the business imperative of delivering results.

And, if we do not deliver, we should be treated like any other underperforming part of a business--and let go. We're up for the challenge.

We will always welcome positive media coverage. What we are really looking forward to are articles that report on proven, measured success.