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One need not have attended last week’s ASU+GSV Summit (we didn’t) to grasp that the line separating nonprofit and for-profit higher education is rapidly eroding. Nowadays, it is impossible to describe the most important trends impacting colleges and universities in isolation from an understanding of the role of for-profit companies.

In no area of academia is this university/corporate integration more apparent than in the growth of online degree and nondegree programs. Too often, however, higher education observers make the mistake of focusing narrowly on the growth of the bundled online program management industry. OPMs get all the press, as their business model involves revenue shares and long-term contracts—arrangements that some find troubling.

OPMs represent only a portion of a much deeper entanglement between schools and companies. Universities have traditionally relied on a wide range of corporate partners to run their operations. What is perhaps different now is that partnerships with for-profit companies have begun to emerge at the core of the academic teaching enterprise. As education is increasingly digitally mediated, it is the platforms of for-profit companies on which a growing proportion of teaching and learning occurs.

The pandemic has served to immensely accelerate the pace at which universities and companies are partnering at the educational core. According to Holon IQ, the pace of ed-tech venture funding increased 72 percent during the pandemic years, climbing to nearly $21 billion in 2021.

There is nothing inherently wrong with nonprofit schools partnering with for-profit companies. Returning to OPM partnerships for a moment, a university may decide to develop and launch new online programs using “in-house” resources, forgoing the need to partner with a bundled OPM provider for course design, technology, marketing and student support. However, that same university is almost certain to contract with a for-profit provider of marketing, recruitment and enrollment management services to try to fill up the classes for that new online program.

As we’ve said before, universities can’t have capabilities and expertise in all the components of digital education. We’d prefer schools to focus on improving teaching and learning than on search engine optimization and online advertising. One challenge, though, is that these services that universities pay companies to provide in connection with educational programs are in addition to the corporate technologies, platforms and digital tools that we increasingly depend on for teaching and learning.

As we all hurtle toward this brave new world of ubiquitous nonprofit/for-profit postsecondary collaborations, what seems necessary is a statement of principles to guide these partnerships. A statement of principles can be a tool to architect a partnership. And that statement can be a touchstone in which to judge when either party of the nonprofit/for-profit dyad is failing to live up to the principles in which the partnership originated. What might be included in a nonprofit/for-profit statement of principles to guide partnerships in educational programs? We’d suggest the following:

  • Transparency: Financial terms relating to business relationships between nonprofit schools and for-profit companies should be publicly disclosed. With the advantages of nonprofit status, there is a responsibility to engage in behaviors that benefit the public good. This is crucial in shared governance models in particular. Faculty should be aware of the investments universities are making with these partnerships. As companies become more deeply involved with the core educational mission of universities, it is hard to argue with the assertion that gaining a better understanding of the impact of these nonprofit/for-profit educational partnerships on student and institutional outcomes is not in the public good.
  • Research: Transparency around school/company partnerships is only of limited use unless something is done with those data. As institutions dedicated to both education and the creation of knowledge, universities are uniquely positioned to leverage their core research competencies to investigate the impact on school/company collaborations. For research to be effective, it must be comparative and cross-institutional. Companies need to act as research partners to universities in funding and operationalizing research related to nonprofit/for-profit partnerships.
  • Engagement: Neither transparency nor research is adequate without a commitment to engagement. The research needs to be discussed, analyzed, critiqued and hopefully acted upon. Today, colleges and universities are forced to approach the evaluation of potential educational partnerships with companies with only access to minimal information. There is little in the way of learning from the experiences of peer institutions and prior partnerships. Visibility into the financial arrangements and outcomes related to nonprofit/for-profit partnerships across the postsecondary sector is minimal. Schools and companies that work together to develop, market, run and support educational programs should commit to sharing what they learn with the broader higher education community.

Clearly, these three principles of transparency, research and engagement (if these are the correct principles) to guide school/company educational partnerships need to be considered more carefully, but perhaps this would help all involved in our ongoing work.

How might our community move this conversation forward?

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