University partnerships with corporations are proliferating. But some institutions seem to be better at these relationships than others. Here, experts provide some experience-based insights into strategies that work.


University partnerships with corporations typically launch with a press release. With rosy rhetoric and lots of optimism, those documents outline the partners’ aspirations for their new joint venture. But representing just a point in time, these announcements do not fully reflect the often arduous planning and negotiations that brought the partnership to fruition. Neither do they reflect the partners’ hopes that the arrangements framed in the press release will continue to bear fruit well into the future.

Given that more universities are engaging in more partnerships with more corporations, the time is right for a closer look at those relationships. What factors help universities design an effective corporate partnership? What are some potential pitfalls to watch for? What should a university look to a corporate partner to bring to the table, and what is a corporation looking for its university partner to bring? What makes a partnership successful? How do you measure success? And finally, assuming the partnership proves successful, how can that success be sustained over time?

Looking for leverage

While universities and corporations have long sought ways to work together—IBM’s long record of collaborating with campus-based researchers is a good case in point—partnerships between universities and corporations have really taken hold in the last decade or so. As universities look for financial leverage to help make constricted budgets work, partnerships with corporations have become a more common and even essential component of fiscal strategy for many institutions. Public-private partnerships that draw on corporate expertise in support of non-academic functions, such as facilities management and real estate development, have been flourishing for several years now. A newer trend is that universities are increasingly recognizing the value of partnering with corporations in support of mission-critical components of the academic mission, including recruitment and enrollment, data analytics, student support services and, notably, development and delivery of academic programs.

An increasing number of corporations partner with universities to provide academic programming that can help their employees meet personal and professional goals, such as completing a degree, often with the hope that such benefits will improve both worker productivity and employee retention. Starbucks, for example, partnered with Arizona State University and pays for its employees to pursue their bachelor’s degrees online. This past August, FedEx Express and The University of Memphis launched a new initiative that allows employees at the company’s Memphis hub to earn an online degree tuition-free. Hoping to grow IT skills, Google has partnered with 25 community colleges to help students earn IT Support Professional certificates.

In addition to these examples, Coursera, edX, and Udacity are leading a new model of collaboration in which corporations partner with universities to design, build, and deliver degree programs. Universities participating in this type of partnership include Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas at Austin, among others.

Structuring partnerships

Just as university partnerships with corporations can take different forms, the way universities structure themselves to engage in partnerships also differs. In some cases, a leading administrator or a prominent faculty member will be the campus point person, perhaps based on professional relationships with corporate staff. In smaller schools, the president might be that central point of contact. Partnerships may percolate through a university office focused on cooperative research, technology commercialization, or development of intellectual property or through an office dedicated to corporate partnerships.

Some institutions populate an office devoted to partnerships with sales and marketing staff who, in essence, knock on corporation doors seeking opportunities. Currently engaged in more than 30 corporate partnerships, DePaul University has been highly successful with a variation of that model, which evolved over time. “We’ve always had partnerships with corporations out of many different areas of the university,” says Suzanne Depeder, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul. “In years past, it was a much more fragmented approach. We’ve tried to pull that together into a more formalized approach.”

“We had to make sure that we had the right structure in place in order to do that,” Depeder says, so starting in 2014, DePaul launched its Corporate and Employer Outreach (CEO) business unit. Along with establishing that office went work to help deans and faculty understand how DePaul could expand its corporate partnerships. In part, Depeder says, that meant building on DePaul’s understanding of how to market to students or customers—a “B to C model”—to also include how to develop and execute business to business, or B to B, relationships.

“The B to B model expects you to come prepared, to be able to articulate the value proposition right up front,” Depeder says. Corporate representatives don’t want to merely be told a list of what degrees and programs a university offers, she says, but instead want to be able to see from the start that the university partner understands both their industry and the particular corporation’s business objectives. Accordingly, she says, “we approach these corporate partnerships in more of a consultative approach.” Focusing on how DePaul could add value with corporations in business, technology, and healthcare, the university has developed relationships with corporate partners that include Allstate, McDonald’s, Northern Trust, United Airlines, and Walgreens, among others.

DePaul’s partnerships run a wide gamut, from providing tuition discounts and professional development opportunities to running MBA and other degree programs at company facilities. In terms of creating academic programs for corporate partners, Depeder says “the value proposition with the companies is partnering with them to identify and customize degree and certificate programs that help them attract and retain a talented workforce.” From listening to its partners, she says, DePaul recognized that they don’t always want degree programs. “Sometimes they’re looking for smaller, bite-size types of course work that could either be credit bearing or non-credit bearing,” she says. “We’ve gotten very creative in making sure that we’re responding to what the organization is looking for, not just what we have to offer. That’s where the consultative approach comes in.”

While not engaged in the kind of marketing outreach that DePaul’s CEO office undertakes, the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern University is also intent on expanding its corporate partnerships. For Northwestern Dean Thomas F. Gibbons, it’s imperative to deeply understand a potential partner’s needs and shape services to meet those needs. In an ongoing relationship with Cigna, for example, Gibbons and his corporate partners recognized that the company wanted to go beyond a simple tuition reimbursement program to help employees develop specific skillsets that would help the company advance its goals. As one example of that kind of targeted learning, Gibbons and colleagues responded to Cigna’s need for high-end training in data analytics by creating a five-course graduate certificate program with that focus. Programs in other areas of identified need are being developed.

“A lot of universities have tried corporate partnerships and failed,” Gibbons says. “They get a contract or two but then they just fall apart. There’s an infinite line of failed efforts by a lot of universities, and that’s why you don’t see a lot of universities doing this in a very serious, strategic way.” One way for universities to help ensure success in corporate partnering, he says,  is to “build a strategic organization” that supports that work. Also imperative, he says, is making sure that new initiatives do not impinge on existing relationships that university programs might have with corporations. “You want to be transparent, so you don’t create that kind of conflict,” Gibbons says.

Push and pull

Tom Oser, interim vice provost for Continuing Education and UCLA Extension at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that two variations for how universities can connect with corporations can be thought of as “push” and “pull” models. In the latter, he says, “corporations are looking for education, they’re aware of your brand, and they come and they ask, what can you do for us?” In most such cases, Oser says, corporations are typically looking for a transaction to fill a predetermined need rather than a long-term partnership. It’s important for a university to recognize that, Oser says—and reflect on what that means. “Are we in the business of responding to a transaction? And sometimes the answer is yes, we’re willing to do that,” Oser says. “Then we have to take into account the costs of gearing up to do that, the cost of delivery. Is it within the strike zone of what we already deliver, or do we have to develop something brand new? Where will this transaction take place—at our facilities or at their location? You have to ask all those questions, and then you have to decide what you are willing to do in terms of return.” If a company wants a specific program, Oser says, it’s important to explore factors like whether they want a degree program or a certificate and what kind of input they want to have on course content and academic requirements. Another dimension to explore is how what the corporation is seeking to do fits with their overall plans. That may open new doors. For example, he says, “they may be looking for a partner that can solve several pieces of a multiyear professional development strategy.”

In addition to developing partnerships via the “pull” model, UCLA also takes a “push” tack, making a proactive scan of market needs for education and letting corporations know how UCLA has served such needs in the past and could again in the future.

As dean for professional education at Georgia Institute of Technology, Nelson Baker has helped broker many successful partnerships. He says that “deeply listening” to corporate partners is key. “We’ll go into companies, listen to them very intently, and ask probing questions. What’s your strategic plan for your company? Where do you want to be five years from now? Does your work force currently allow you to get to where you want to go? If not, what’s the gap and how do we help fill the gap?” Drilling down even further, he says, Georgia Tech will ask potential partners to think deeply about their needs: “It’s very much targeted to their employee base around the problems and issues that they’re having and directions they’re trying to go. Let’s define what X really means. How would you measure whether somebody has the capabilities to do that?”

“Most corporations can’t hire their way to the strategic plan,” Baker says. “They have to retool and reinvent existing people. That’s where we come in—not just Georgia Tech, but we as higher education in providing those new capabilities for existing workers.”

Under the hood

As the universe of university partnerships with corporations expands, a body of knowledge is starting to build about what factors help make such relationships work (and, conversely, where some of the pitfalls for partnerships lie). Part of making a partnership work is understanding what the respective parties bring to the table in the relationship. Some factors are obvious, but doubling down to truly understand some of the nuances might help build a stronger partnership.

“The value provided by a university to IBM is typically in one or more of the key areas of research, recruiting, or skills,” says Naguib Attia, vice president for IBM Global University Programs. For example, he says, “top-tier research universities may have research expertise in a niche area that adds value to the corporation’s strategic imperatives, making collaboration an attractive option.” Similarly, Jimmy Etheredge, senior managing director for Accenture, says a company like his looks to a university partner to provide “talent and innovation.” Accenture has been involved recently in working with Georgia Tech in the development of two new at-scale online master’s degree programs in analytics and cybersecurity.

The brainpower that universities have invests them with a strong capacity to “enhance and extend” expertise that a corporate partner might have in house, says Kemi Jona, a computer scientist who serves as associate dean for digital innovation and enterprise learning in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University. Jona helps lead what Northeastern calls its enterprise learning partnerships. Under that umbrella, for example, Northeastern worked with General Electric Aviation to develop a new bachelor’s degree program in advanced manufacturing systems. Engaging in what the school calls a “strategic learning partnership” with IBM led to improved articulation of that company’s digital badge program and allowed IBM employees and others who earn badges to have those credentials apply for graduate credit in Northeastern’s master’s-level degree programs. For some 15 years, the school ran an onsite MBA program for employees of EMC Corporation (now Dell EMC) that enabled employees to customize that experience for themselves.

Jona says universities bring considerable value to the table simply because they have the ability to deliver education, a benefit that both corporations and their employees value. “There’s a lot of good data to say that employees who see education as a benefit tend to value that very highly” and feel a lot of loyalty to companies that help them advance their learning, Jona says.

Laying the groundwork

What factors help universities create, structure, and execute a successful partnership with a corporation? One obvious essential is a well-crafted memorandum of understanding that painstakingly outlines the parameters of a partnership and expectations around it. “Setting realistic expectations for time commitments, plans, and funding potential is important,” Attia says. Partnership MOUs should document objectives for the partnership, define regular checkpoints on progress with agreed upon confirmation criteria for success, and include a plan for updating the metrics as the relationship grows, he says. Deciding upfront how intellectual property will be treated can help “ensure mutual value and trust,” Attia says. Citing another consideration, Depeder says it’s important that partners articulate how the partnership will work operationally and day-to-day, not just from a legal or financial standpoint.

“I think an important part of creating a successful partnership is to find specific shared goals and opportunities that the corporation and the university can collaborate around,” Etheredge says.  In this case, he suggests, “specificity” is the operative term: “Sometimes we can talk hypothetically, for example, about how we might get some professors and graduate students to collaborate around a topic like shopper security or analytics,” he says. “What becomes important is to get more specific:  Okay, here’s a project or an opportunity [in these areas] where we can specifically collaborate. Being able to lock down on where you have some shared goals and interest that can really manifest itself into some specific opportunity is an important part of growing a partnership.”

Because corporations and universities are both complex organizations, Etheredge says, it’s vital for both parties to find the right liaisons who can understand each other and navigate their respective hierarchies to move the partnership forward. “I want to avoid having a situation where it takes four months for us to all legally agree how to do this, and then three weeks to do a project,” he says. “We want to keep doing these fast projects, but we need to make it as easy as possible for the partners to plug in and collaborate.”

Attia says that for corporate and university engagement to succeed, “both organizations must recognize and value the potential benefits from the proposed collaboration.” On one hand, he says, “the university may be able to leverage industry expertise, industry tools, and industry insights as a competitive advantage.” Corporations, on the other hand, might be able to use a partnership with a university as a channel to collaborate with academic leaders to “influence the development skills initiatives that result in a pipeline of talent for today and tomorrow’s workforce,” he says.

Another success factor hinges on the ability of the partners to be open with each other and willing to troubleshoot problems that arise and change plans as needed. “These partnerships consist of individual people who want to be treated fairly and with respect,” Attia says. “If those involved truly like and respect each other, it will be easy to be flexible as the relationship changes. Trust is essential. Openness and transparency, to the extent possible, is desirable.” Suggesting that continuous evaluation and renewal of goals are predicates for sustaining a successful partnership, Attia urges that “if a program isn’t working, don’t fear pivoting to something new.”

Echoing that, Jona says that partners need to be willing to invest the time and effort needed to build a relationship built on trust—necessary work that he says is “often invisible to outside stakeholders.” Investing that degree of effort is essential, he suggests, for building the joint commitment that is needed to make partnerships work. “It can’t be one-sided,” Jona says. “It can’t just be, say, the university who really values the relationship. There really has got to be a deeply shared commitment on both sides.”

Yet another key component, Attia says, is engagement from the top. Successful partnerships need “high-level executive sponsors on both sides who are vested in the success of the relationship,” he says. Further, he believes, corporations should engage with faculty leaders who can advocate on the participating campus for the goals of the collaboration.

Attia also urges that university partners make sure that academic programs they develop in concert with corporations remain grounded in the real world. “A corporate/university partnership may propel an industry forward with new ideas and products coming into the market through advanced research initiatives,” he says, but some important caveats may apply. “Faculty willing to collaborate on curriculum development in strategic skill areas are of great interest” to corporate partners, Attia says, but “should be encouraged to include practical and current use cases into the curriculum, teaching students to discover solutions rather than learning only theory.”

Bumps in the road

The road to successful university partnerships with corporations is chock-a-block with potential hazards. Partnerships can quickly devolve, for example, when newly appointed managers in a corporation don’t share their predecessors’ goals for education. Similarly, corporate layoffs, mergers, and acquisitions can throw a wrench into existing partnerships. In a larger sense, corporate goals or market conditions can change quickly, potentially making some partnerships outdated and obsolete. “The biggest pitfalls may be in the relationships of the people involved” in partnerships, Attia says. “When key players change, it is a time to recommit to the relationship for continuity.”

Attia also says that partnerships can go awry when partner goals are not in sync—for example, “when industry reaches out to academia for a short-term fix or when academia views a corporation primarily as a source of funding only.” Those kinds of missteps can be avoided, he says, if both parties are clear from the start about what kinds of benefits they hope to reap from the partnership and what kinds of contributions each will make to ensure its success.

Cultural differences between corporations and universities can also create roadblocks. For instance, Gibbons says, corporations may think that higher education acts too slowly or may not understand how universities design academic programs. “You’ve got to work through that,” he says, noting that doing so takes flexibility and understanding from both parties.

Another miscue may stem from insufficient research about market demand by a university creating a program—or simply insufficient marketing of a program. Jona recalls circumstances, for example, where a university “created an offering for employees that it thought was really compelling,” but “didn’t have the marketing plan in place in order to get that message out.” As a result, he says, that program “didn’t get a lot of uptake,” or at least as much as was hoped for. Conversely, he says, he has seen programs that “have a very regular and targeted way to reach out to employees for whom it would be relevant that have seen much greater success.”

Assessing success

Many of the metrics that determine whether a given partnership is successful are axiomatic. The number of students who enroll in and then complete given programs is one such measure, as are assessments of how well students perform academically in those programs. Another tangible is reflected in the profits that a program reaps. While noting that sometimes the right metrics for a partnership depend on its objectives—measures for a research partnership might be papers published while metrics for a recruiting partnership could tally new hires—Attia says that documented objectives and “agreement at senior leadership levels on the metrics for success,” can help a partnership run smoothly.

Oser measures a program’s success looking at changes in enrollment year-to-year then over 5- and 10-year horizons. Careful analysis is needed, he says, to assess what the enrollment numbers actually mean. For example, he says, if a new course does not attract as many students as was projected, “low enrollment may indicate that you’ve got to spend more time marketing and making the public aware of the opportunity.” On the other hand, he says, if a once successful program sees erosion in meeting enrollment targets, “it drives the question, have we taken our eye off the ball? Is the quality and the content up to the expectations of the current market, or is it just lack of interest in the course anymore?”

Assessing the top-line revenues that a given program brings in also requires a nuanced review “relative to all the courses that you’re offering,” Oser says. “There are different price points for different courses. We respond to the market, and for popular courses and depending upon competition, we may raise or lower the rates to try to deal with market supply and demand issues.”

Gibbons says it’s important for universities to work with their corporate partners to reach a common understanding of what results the corporation hopes an educational experience will help employees gain. “What competencies are trying to be achieved? Are employees learning skills that they are then applying in the workplace? You should work with the company to think through how those outcomes can be measured,” Gibbons says.

“Whether it’s sales growth, customer service, revenue growth, whatever the business metric is, then I think aligning with your partner around that really helps keep everyone’s eye on the ball,” Jona says.

Sustaining momentum

Partnerships typically launch with a great deal of optimism and energy. But how can such enthusiasm be sustained over time? Ongoing communications and regular update meetings between partners are obviously essential. “You really have to keep the conversation going,” Jona says. “You can’t just sign an agreement and then assume that everything is going to work well from that point on.”

“Whether a relationship is established or you’re trying to establish a relationship, it’s being in a regular conversation about the issues of education and professional development in general—and not around questions like ‘Are you going to buy this course from us or not?’” Oser says. “If you can establish a conversation where you have a common interest, and you can gauge how important a given topic is to a partner at any given time, then you can stay in sync with them, and they’re always willing to talk to you, because you’re talking to them about things that are relevant to them. You can’t accomplish that just when they need a particular course. You need to understand what they’re thinking about over the longer term, so that when a strategic opportunity arises, you already understand what they’re interested in and thinking about, so that you can serve them at the time they’re ready to do the next thing.”

Etheredge believes a key to sustaining a strong partnership over time is to widen the circle of conversation from just the project managers to also include leaders on both the academic and corporate sides. But that raises a practical consideration about how much bandwidth leaders have. On the university side, for example, Jona notes that academic leaders typically have “only so much time to go around.” It’s imperative, therefore, to weigh how much ongoing time a leader will have to devote to a partnership against other institutional priorities—and even, Jona says, against expectations about the revenues and student enrollments the partnership will generate.

Expanding partnerships

Experience suggests a number of other guidelines that can help ensure a partnership’s success. Etheredge, for example, urges universities to make it easy for corporate partners to find the right campus contacts for starting and sustaining partnerships.

Attia recommends that universities simply take first steps in starting relationships that might lead to partnerships. “Reach out to a corporation and invite them to a general discussion on the institutions’ objectives to determine if there are any shared objectives or synergy,” he says. “Be willing to listen and try to understand the world from the corporate point of view, just as the corporate participants should consider the academic point of view.”

“First and foremost,” Depeder suggests, “have the right people at the helm [for managing partnerships], individuals with experience doing this. Not just in working on the sales side, in building corporate partnerships, but also the experience needed to work with university deans and faculty to leverage those relationships. Those internal resources can help create buy-in. Second, have a solid strategic plan on who your target audience is. And third—and this is true for any business initiative—make sure that you’ve got the right people that have energy and passion and are having fun at what they’re doing.”

“I think it comes down to being strategic and prioritizing,” Jona says. “It can be very exciting to try to engage with a well-known partner, but you have to be really clear on how much effort you have to spread around and where you want to spend that time.” Just as important, he says, is “selecting partners that are aligned with the kinds of offerings that you have. If your portfolio doesn’t contain any financial services kinds of offerings, then going to an insurance company or a bank probably isn’t going to be that productive for you. You have to be honest with yourself about what your portfolio contains and what you’re prepared to offer, and try to align with that.”

“Obviously, the other thing to do is to go where your brand has the greatest cachet,”Jona says. “That tends to be in your local area, depending on who you are. Beyond that, play to your strengths and find partners where you have a strong alumni base. That’s a really good way to start. And then, build from there.”


Stephen G. Pelletier ([email protected]) is an independent writer and editor who writes frequently about higher education. Prior to starting his full-time freelance practice in 2006, he served for many years as vice president for communications at the Council of Independent Colleges, directed the publications program at NASFA: Association of International Educators, and edited the magazine at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.