Four Critical Steps to Entering a Public-Private Partnership
Service partnerships allow institutions to simultaneously improve offerings and reduce costs. There will always be concerns about quality in teaching and learning partnerships, but these can be avoided.

Partnering with independent providers to provide ancillary services such as bookstore management and food service needs is a longstanding practice in the community college arena. Despite the fact this widely-accepted model has been found to be efficient and cost effective, a similar approach to the “outsourcing” of instruction is sometimes viewed with trepidation. Observing a four-step process can greatly reduce the risks of entering into such a partnership and increase its chances for success.

Regardless of the prevailing economic climate, finding ways to do more with less is always smart business practice. Call it “outsourcing” or “contracting out,”  working with third-party providers allows community colleges to offer a more robust curriculum without adding staff, incurring start-up costs, paying overhead or investing large amounts of money in marketing and associated costs. It’s not a shortcut; it’s good stewardship of limited resources.

One of the best ways to extend the reach of course offerings is through partnerships with organizations with proven track records for providing quality instruction. Strategically crafted partnerships with carefully vetted independent course developers can provide quality educational services to the greatest number of constituents, placing innovative technologies and new career paths within easy reach of the masses.

Over the past several decades, a variety of companies have developed an inventory of hundreds of courses and certificate programs for the continuing education marketplace. When these offerings are selected thoughtfully and delivered carefully through an accredited community college partner, student outcomes can be impressive.

From accounting to web design, these educational partners enable community colleges to offer hundreds of engaging online courses to continuing education and workplace development students. Typically, each course includes an instructor, theoretical and practical content and a means of interacting in real time with fellow students. Some who have worked extensively with third party-provided curricula maintain that — because the course materials are standardized — they produce more predictable, consistent and high-quality student outcomes. And because the college has contracted directly with the instructional partner and branded the course offering appropriately, the process is seamless to students.

There is no doubt a partnership with third-party vendors is less costly than other alternatives. Because contractors often rely on instructors who are currently working in their fields, students often benefit from teachers who have specialized, up-to-the-minute knowledge of course content, as well as a robust network of contacts in the specialty area. In addition, many firms  provide not only curriculum and instructors, but also assist with marketing and other program management activities — also lowering the costs to community colleges significantly.

Intrigued? The concept is far more widespread than it was just 10 years ago, and it is growing in popularity. However, partnering with a third-party vendor for educational services should not be entered into without careful consideration. To that end, I suggest a four-step process:

Step One: Review the vision, mission and goals of your potential partner. Seek out where the proposed partner’s goals converge with the college’s, in terms of assuring student success, community growth, economic development and jobs, and also identify where they diverge.

Step Two: Identify the short-term investments (licensing fees and other related costs) and returns for the college and its students.

Step Three: Consider the long-term results expected for the college, staff and students.

Step Four: Decide who will lead the process and outline the responsibilities of each partner. Consider the amount of time and staffing it will take to administer and implement the partnership.

It’s interesting to note that, as early as 2002, community colleges nationwide were exploring the pros and cons of outsourcing instruction. In fact, I was interviewed by representatives from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) for a seminal report on this issue, which was released in January 2004.

Because the practice was in its earliest stages, and the community college I was then working for had not established a policy surrounding it, I spoke to the authors on the condition of anonymity. Now, nearly a decade later, I have negotiated 23 contracts with third-party vendors to provide instruction in this manner, and have every confidence in this type of partnership.

In conclusion, it should be noted most community college that outsource instruction have the core competence to develop these types of instructional programs in-house. However, as Jim Collins noted in his best-selling book, “Good to Great,” just because an organization possesses a core competence to complete a task, doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best — or the most efficient — at it. Great organizations realize what they can be the best at and focus on those areas, yielding certain types of curriculum development and delivery to proven partners that will not disappoint or compromise student outcomes.

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Readers Comments

James Branden 2013/07/11 at 10:34 am

I can’t stress enough the importance of having details about the partnership clearly stated in writing. Partners should clarify — and agree on — roles ahead of time, and also have answers to questions like who owns the content once a course has been developed. This will help both parties to avoid countless headaches in the future.

When done right, service partnerships can be great. I agree with the point that just because an institution is able to perform a certain task, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should. Here’s hoping institutions take that to heart and start to develop some creative education delivery partnerships. Great article!

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