3 steps to building successful public-private partnerships in higher education

Insights from a leader partnering with colleges and universities across the country

“Loss of control.” When higher education leaders were asked in a 2019 Chronicle of Higher Education poll what they feared most in entering a public-private partnership, that was one of their top worries.

Yet we live in an era when the boundaries of higher education are more permeable than ever. Institutions and their partner organizations are working together to enrich the student experience, help students achieve the best outcomes, and make it easier to weave education and employment together over a lifetime.

The most successful partnerships spark novel solutions to stubborn problems and strengthen systems throughout the institution, producing increasing benefits year after year. 

However, the fear of losing control is understandable. It’s not tough to dig up a horror story of a partnership that under-delivered — or even created more challenges than it solved. That fear can poison the environment to the point where even the strongest partnerships can’t thrive.

We recently sat down with Pete Wheelen, CEO of InsideTrack and Executive Chairman of Roadtrip Nation, two organizations in the Strada Education Network that partner with hundreds of higher education institutions nationwide. We asked Wheelan what he saw as the essential elements to an effective public-private partnership. His answer, in a word, was “trust.” 

According to Wheelan, nurturing trust from the very outset of a partnership is critical to ensuring hoped-for outcomes and a strong return on investment. He offered three steps institutions can take to build trust with their partners.

1.   Establish your institutional mission and goals — then leverage your partner to build alignment

The foundation for a successful partnership is a strong strategic plan — and that should be in place before the engagement begins, said Wheelan. 

“Strategic planning is great at solidifying strong leadership and commitment,” he said.

When’s the right time to bring in a partner? After that plan is in place. A good partner jumps in to support institutional objectives once leadership establishes institutional goals, Wheelan explained. At that point, the partner can bring fresh expertise on how to achieve those goals.

One way partners help leadership get new initiatives off the ground is building consensus among internal teams.

Having healthy “connective tissue,” as Wheelan describes it, is critical to a trusting partnership. It’s also something that external partners are especially well-positioned to create. Public-private partnerships get different departments and offices talking to each other, no matter what the engagement focuses on.

“It’s never just one simple initiative,” Wheelan noted. “There has to be a willingness to tackle org design, tackle processes and engage in change management.” 

Clearly-articulated goals from leadership can align all stakeholders — internal and external — to advance a central mission. 

2.   The goal is change — so don’t be surprised when things change

Change is, by definition, unsettling. When the ground beneath your feet starts to rumble at the same time that a new partner steps onto the scene, alarm bells are likely to go off. But chances are, you decided to work with an external partner because long-held processes and systems no longer meet your needs. 

When the goal of a partnership is improvement — better outcomes, more effective programs, more efficient functions — change is an indication that you’re making progress. Approaching change as an expected part of the process will strengthen trust between partners and the institution. 

According to Wheelan, that mindset starts with the contract. “There has to be a contract that aligns on high-end objectives, but allows flexibility in execution,” Wheelan said. A solid contract should allow the parties to respond to new information and shifting circumstances throughout the engagement.

“If a partnership is successful, things on the ground will change and all parties will need to adapt,” Wheelan continued. As a new institutional environment emerges, tactics and strategies should shift. Instead of trying to restrict the partnership, institutions should lean on the partner’s ability to innovate as the situation demands.

3.   Invite collaboration — and don’t isolate your partner from the rest of the institution 

Many of the accepted norms of public-private partnerships undermine efforts to build trust, said Wheelan. How so? By preventing opportunities for collaboration at critical milestones within the engagement, from selecting a partner to measuring outcomes. 

Right from the outset, the selection process too often isolates potential partners from the institutional staff they’ll be working with. 

“The typical RFP process is designed to keep partners distant from the relevant stakeholders at the institution,” Wheelan explained. The lack of face-to-face engagement ultimately makes it tougher for institutions to find the best fit.

When it comes time to measure outcomes, efforts to isolate the partner-led initiative from the rest of the institution again leave little opportunity for collaboration.

“The reality is that higher education is not a controlled environment,” Wheelan said. It’s almost impossible to isolate the effects of one intervention from everything else that impacts outcomes. Beyond that, it’s not even desirable.

It’s not in the institution’s best interests to have an intervention that succeeds regardless of the larger educational environment; nor is it in the partner’s. That’s because the overall aim of a partnership isn’t to secure a set of data that fits neatly on a slide. It’s to catalyze ongoing improvement from deep within the institution.

Trust starts from within

These steps can help institutions build trust with external partners. But for any of these strategies to work, they need to be built on an internal foundation of trust.

“Trust within the institution is key — trust of leadership, trust among departments, and trust between students and staff,” Wheelan said. Only then can partners be seamlessly integrated into a cohesive institutional culture.

Want more insights from InsideTrack CEO and Roadtrip Nation Executive Chairman Pete Wheelan? Read his post on student success fundamentals.

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