Published on 2014/01/21

The College as a Client: Evaluating Vendor Relationships

The College as a Client: Evaluating Vendor Relationships
Institutions cannot possibly have in-house expertise in every area related to running a successful operation, which is why service partnerships are critical to success.
Sometimes called vendors, consultants and (most appropriately) partners, a multitude of organizations have developed over the years to work with higher education institutions to make them better and stronger. Because of the limited resources of some colleges and universities, as well as the changing environment in higher education (accreditation, online learning, etc.), these partners can provide specialized services to help institutions meet their complex needs. Three specific areas will be reviewed.

1. Marketing and Branding

Branding, marketing and advertising can be challenging for many colleges. In many cases, an advertising firm or consultant is hired on a short- or long-term basis to assist with branding and marketing campaigns. More colleges are outsourcing this to the experts who advise on digital, TV, radio and print-based initiatives. Full-service partners will help develop and execute all aspects of the campaign based on the budget provided to them. Some firms make their money off retainer fees while others receive a commission for the ads they place in the radio and TV markets. The amount they are charging is usually well worth it for the services and expertise the college receives from them.

2. Student Support

Student support is another area many colleges are starting to outsource to enhance what they may already be doing for students. This is usually a supplement to the services they already offer. Some examples of this include tutoring, career services and guidance support. Some partners provide all-inclusive services that are separate from the college or university (i.e. online tutoring support, where a student logs into a system separate from the college to get support) to programs embedded and used by college staff. One example of this is advising and early alert programs that help college staff to more effectively support students. The majority of student support services purchased by colleges are software and back-end support.

3. Assessment and Accreditation

Assessment and accreditation support is becoming the next big wave of assistance that partners are providing. Colleges and universities are required to produce more and more evidence that students are meeting learning outcomes and paying for a college education that will help them to attain employment in their fields. The cost of education is a sensitive topic along with all of the principles of accreditation that regional accreditors hold colleges accountable for. Firms are developing software and providing specialized consultants to help colleges, large and small, address these problems.


Regardless of its size or the number of Ph.D.’s that work there, all schools can benefit from partners in the three areas discussed above, among others. Colleges are paying for specialized infrastructure, expertise and, in most cases, high-level consultants. These types of partnerships will help colleges and universities overcome their obstacles to meet the needs of their students.

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Readers Comments

Ravi Narayan 2014/01/22 at 8:20 am

The types of partnerships we are starting to see related to assessment and accreditation aren’t like the more traditional vendor relationships, where one party is selling and the other is buying. Instead, we are seeing large institutions lend their brands to low-cost (primarily online) providers, who deliver courses that either partner may award credentials for. It’s not quite the same as a simple buy-and-sell relationship because both partners may be involved in product/service development and credentialing.

Yvonne Laperriere 2014/01/22 at 4:34 pm

For the most part, I agree with Duff. One area I would advise institutions to be cautious in is student support services. I think institutions often see their core missions as teaching, whereas students tend to see the institution’s mission as helping them find jobs. As there is increased focus on educational outcomes and, in a sense, post-graduation support, it will become more important for institutions to retain functions such as career advising and mentoring in-house.

Evan Duff 2014/01/28 at 12:02 pm

I agree Yvonne. I would never suggest that an institution outsource everything or even their core services. I see vendors as a supplement to a college or university’s existing services. One example of this would be using an online tutoring service that offers support at 2am when the tutoring center at the college is closed.

Guhan 2014/09/25 at 7:08 pm

Regarding “Firms are developing software and providing specialized consultants to help colleges, large and small, address these (accreditation and assessment) problems”:

I can understand the kind of services consultants can provide, but I dont understand the kind of software solutions being provided to help with accreditation and assessment problems. Any examples on how these software solutions are helping document evidence that students are meeting learning outcomes?

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