How to Navigate Public-Private Partnerships in Higher Ed



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by Rita T. Karam and Charles A. Goldman

May 26, 2017

This commentary originally appeared on on May 26, 2017.

Less than a decade ago, doubts abounded about the role of online learning in traditional colleges and universities. Today, the online revolution continues to explode. Purdue University's recent deal to buy the largely virtual Kaplan University is only the latest example of mainstream higher education's determination to dominate the competitive online market. But there are risks to consider.

Many universities have grown their own online programs, which offer a way to expand access—especially to nontraditional students—while also lowering costs. Our RAND Corporation study of 12 Texas public universities shows that large-scale online courses have the potential to generate net income that can be used to support other important activities, such as graduate research.

But other universities lack the resources or expertise to go it alone. Increasingly, they are forming partnerships with private companies that have the technology, funds and marketing know-how to help them compete in the expanding universe of online learning and maximize student enrollment.

These partnerships have become controversial for a number of reasons.

The extent to which a company seeks to increase its financial gain could influence how programs are structured.

Critics argue that the quality of online programs offered through the partnerships could be diluted because of the conflicting missions of universities and private companies. Public universities seek to provide high-quality education to their students, while private companies aim to make a profit. The extent to which a company seeks to increase its financial gain could influence how programs are structured. For example, some privately designed online programs require fewer credits or have reduced workloads, which make them attractive to working students. But the accelerated pace comes at a cost, leaving insufficient time to cover a subject in depth.

Other programs focus on enrolling a large number of students, which could undermine the quality of instruction and limit faculty-student interaction, especially if the faculty members are not well trained in online instruction and the course is not geared to facilitate interaction. Our interviews with higher education leadership also suggest that professors of record are not always the ones teaching the online classes, which can add to concerns about instructional quality and course management.

In this hyper-digital age, online education will continue to push boundaries. To help ensure access to high-quality courses, we have developed guidelines for public universities and their private-sector partners to follow.

From the outset, public universities and their outside partners should be clear about what each is seeking from the relationship. Colleges and universities should define how much influence private companies will have over the program's structure and content. To help ensure quality, faculty members with expertise in the subject should be involved as early as possible in developing the courses.

To maximize benefits to students, partners should continually monitor and improve the quality of the program based on measurable academic and financial outcomes. Universities should consider inviting independent experts to periodically assess online program quality according to criteria already established in the relevant academic field. Program-level accreditation is another way of managing quality, but we found that many institutions do not require it. Whenever possible, online offerings should be accredited by an outside agency.

While public-private partnerships for online programs have the potential to provide universities and private companies with lucrative new streams of revenue and expand access to higher education, both parties must ensure that the mission of higher education and the needs of students are the forces driving these efforts.

Rita Karam is a policy researcher and Charles A. Goldman is a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Both are professors at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.