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Reflecting on Non-Profit/For-Profit Partnerships in Higher Ed

A call for deliberation, prudence and circumspection.

August 12, 2021
 
 

COVID-19 has accelerated the rush of big money into higher education. Even prior to the pandemic, the instructional and credentialing activities of non-profit universities were increasingly mediated by, or even outsourced to, for-profit companies. Our sense is that this has only increased in the past year.

The pandemic-driven pivot from residential to fully remote instruction in 2020 has served to erode a whole series of barriers that had constrained many schools from prioritizing online learning, one of the leading spaces for this kind of outsourcing. Moreover, it’s arguable that for-profit companies that partner with non-profit colleges and universities to develop, market, and run online programs (degree and non-degree) have significantly benefited from this shift.

This week, the epicenter of this convergence of academia and capital was found in San Diego at the ASU+GSV Summit, where plans for the intermingling of non-profit institutions and for-profit companies are often hatched.

As those in academia consider the origins and consequences of the deepening levels of for-profit connections to our work, it is probably worth taking a moment to reflect on what this means for the future of higher education.

To be clear, we are not ideologically opposed to all non-profit/for-profit higher education partnerships.

Universities usefully and productively partner with for-profit companies all the time. IT departments, for example, depend heavily on external partners for many operations that would otherwise be impossible to manage internally. Schools often engage well-established marketing firms to help with recruitment.

We appreciate that utilizing the services of for-profit companies on the wide range of operations that enable the institutional mission is integral to running a modern university.

We find it troubling, however, when these partnerships result in the outsourcing of the core functions of a university. We’re sure we’re not alone in this concern.

Can you imagine, for example, any institution outsourcing one of its academic departments to a for-profit company? How about outsourcing the football team?

Yet, more and more, schools are making choices to outsource core capacities. Sometimes, this happens because the cost to run that function internally appears prohibitive and the promised revenue stream is too enticing to ignore. Sometimes it happens because the work is not yet recognized as a core capacity. This is where we get most concerned.

Much of the more recent outsourcing that is happening now touches on areas of instructional design, advising, student support, and a range of other functions that have become more and more fundamental to delivering high-quality education in the 21st Century.

But recognizing that these are core to the mission of a college or university is a relatively recent thing. Unfortunately, this means that it’s often easier to imagine outsourcing these services because they are not yet fully recognized as central to the mission of the institution.

This is a problem. And it’s a problem that will only grow as more and more schools outsource what needs to be seen as core competencies.

The past year has proven this point. The pandemic demonstrated the centrality of teaching and learning at every institution of higher education. However, it also has shown that these functions are far more complex and dynamic than they may have been 50 years ago.

There is great excitement in the investor community about the potential for companies to accelerate the growth of university-based online learning.

We in higher education should respond to that investor enthusiasm with equal measures of deliberation, prudence, and circumspection. Otherwise, many institutions may look back at this time as the moment they gave away (perhaps even paid someone to take) an intellectual capacity as important as any our institutions hold dear.

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