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What Companies Look for from Higher Ed Partners

In times of economic uncertainty for higher education, corporate partnerships provide not just a great new source of revenue but an opportunity to directly engage with the workforce.

If you’re a higher education institution looking to expand your corporate partnerships, welcome! I work for a Fortune 500 company and run an education and career program for our employees. 

Before going further, I want to highlight the broad spectrum of corporate partnerships out there. On one end there is tuition reimbursement, where the corporate partner has very little involvement beyond their financial contributions. Direct tuition reimbursement programs are perfect for some companies and their partners but tend to be out of reach for companies without deep pockets. 

I offer myself as the other extreme: a program that is heavily involved with our higher education partners, the specific progress of our participants and that even has a small team dedicated exclusively to coaching and advising. We are consistently working closely with our university partners and our learners. So how do you, an institution of higher education, find the partnership real estate that will work for any number of companies on this spectrum? Let’s talk about it. 

Why Partner with a Company?

Corporate partnerships can give your institution access to a group of adult learners that it may never have had a window to previously. We don’t want to pilfer your existing students; we want to bring you a population unlikely to find you otherwise.

Increasing the number of students taking courses through your programs, whether it’s 100 credits or twelve, increases your revenue, persistence rates and graduation outcomes.  

From a branding and name recognition standpoint, it helps both partners to be associated with one another. For the company, we’re able to point to a trustworthy, progressive institution that cares about non-traditional learners. For the institution, programs, student support systems and values are highlighted and endorsed by a trusted corporate brand, which may signal other companies to follow suit.

What is the DNA of a Strong Learning Partner? 

Hopefully those reasons worked their magic, and you’re still reading. If you’ve decided that corporate partnerships are something you want to explore, or if your institution already has corporate partnerships and you’re looking to expand, I’ve listed some critical components that corporations are looking for in a learning partner. If your institution takes even one or two of these for a spin, you’ll find yourselves in position to attract more companies with varying needs.

Flexibility & Creativity

I list flexibility first because it is without question the most important. The students who will come to you through a corporate learning partnership are working adults with limited time, even more limited funds and plenty of other responsibilities. They will have credits from multiple sources, work experience, specialized skills and specific, time-bound goals. As their employer, we want them to have a positive experience with your institution, and that means potentially bending on both sides to meet the needs of your institution and this unique type of learner. This may be evening and weekend hours in your advising department, a specialized admissions counselor who works with a company’s cohort of students, custom program design for relevant business needs, etc. 

This level of flexibility also translates into creativity. We have no desire to upset your current processes (in fact, we prefer to keep what is already working), but we want them to be realistic for our learners and set them up for success. Maybe there is no getting around a residency requirement, but how can we price tuition to make earning those credits more affordable? Can your institution expand what is accepted as transfer credit to things like asynchronous courses evaluated for credit by the American Council on Education (ACE)? Are there any scholarships that might be suitable for our group of learners? 

Regardless of the type of partnership you might be exploring, your corporate partner wants to be able to highlight your institution as outstanding in some way, essentially a “we chose this specific school because they cater to X,” and that’s relevant to our business. For example, my company is an airline, and one of our partners offers college credit for several aviation-related licenses. While that isn’t the only reason we work with them, it’s an exciting component of our program that we can feature with our work groups.

A critical note when it comes to designing workable partnerships: as your corporate partners, we don’t want special treatment, reduced requirements or less academic rigor for our students. We simply want efficient ways to help our employees access college-level learning. If a corporate partner wants you to admit employees who don’t otherwise qualify, or is requesting that their population be held to a different academic standard, I strongly encourage you to walk away and work on the next partnership opportunity. Those of us who want education and career resources for our employees also want them held to the appropriate academic standards. 

Be Progressive (B-E- Progressive! Sorry, couldn’t help myself)

Flexibility and creativity are a significant part of what makes a higher education institution progressive, and some examples of that are listed in the above category. But beyond being more accommodating to adult learners and their goals, what does being progressive mean? 

From the perspective of a corporate partner, it means investing in a few key areas, with both funds and strategy. Where to invest capital is well-covered territory in the education world, from investment in online campuses to shifted use of government funds, but it may also present as providing continuing education for student support staff, or shifting overall strategy to more than one institutional goal (academic AND workforce development, for example). A good place to start is to ask how your institution is supporting credit for prior learning and work experience. Making something like PLA a focus and working to expand what is accepted as transfer credit goes a long way in supporting adult learners and generating interest from corporate partners looking for innovation, but it also tends to increase credential attainment and graduation outcomes for your institution. 

If your partnerships team can be agile and work to create viable solutions for your various potential partners, you can’t lose. 

Direct Relationships

This is a category for our more involved partnerships. I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderful difference it makes to allow your department heads/deans/provosts/etc. to have a direct relationship with one (or a few) company contacts. 

Having to go through a specific partnership contact as a middle person slows us down, and slow isn’t good for anyone. If we have questions about evaluations, how something transferred or why there’s a registration hold, let us talk to the most knowledgeable department about it and skip the back-and-forth. As long as the proper paperwork granting us permission to advocate for students is in place, then let’s get straight to it. From your side, it’s also perfectly reasonable to request that your corporate partner limit contacts to a few key individuals. 


In addition to direct communication about individual students, we need to know what is going on with your college or university on a global scale because it may impact our learners. The specifics of this communication will need to be designed around the type of partnership you’ve established. For more standard tuition-reimbursement partnerships, communication will likely look like regular reporting and a pre-determined schedule of quarterly updates.

For partnerships with more company involvement, we need to know about requirement changes or a transfer source no longer being accepted. This could be a formal update system written into the partnership agreement, monthly meetings with the provost or whatever solution works best for both sides of the partnership. We can’t play by the existing rules if we aren’t kept up to date on what they are.  

From your side, it’s also very welcome when you need to know what’s going on with us! I work in an industry that has been painfully impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic; it’s within your rights to check in with your corporate partners to make sure educational benefits will continue for their employees, even in challenging times.

Nearly done now…

We know that there are plenty of progressive institutions out there who have been focused on rigorous academics as well as continuing, career and technical education for many years, and we salute you. Wherever your institution may be on the wide spectrum of innovation and partnerships, I hope these recommendations will support your continued efforts to provide increased and more equitable access to education for the adults you serve. Partnerships between higher education and corporate employers are a wonderful way forward for equity, career readiness and workforce development. The economic outcomes are more critical now than ever, so go get those corporate partners and let’s get creative!

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