Lessons Learned from a Higher Education Partnership

In the ongoing debate over the rising cost of higher education, collaboration frequently emerges as a proposed path forward.
By: | Issue: December, 2015
December 7, 2015

In the ongoing debate over the rising cost of higher education, collaboration frequently emerges as a proposed path forward. Despite the allure of savings and efficiencies, efforts to follow the strategy often fall victim to both conceptual and implementation flaws. Two institutions, a higher education association and private liberal arts college, have managed to navigate the tricky waters of collaboration to create a rewarding partnership. Our eight-year experience has taught us some key lessons that should be helpful to others.

When The Forum on Education Abroad relocated to the campus of Dickinson College in 2006, it had 165 institutional members and there were few member services and benefits for them. Its two conferences had averaged 200 attendees and there was a bank balance under four figures. Today The Forum is a thriving association with nearly 700 institutional members with an impressive range of services and benefits. Its annual and European conferences, workshops and training programs attract over 2,000 people annually. And it has an endowment reserve over $1.3 million.

Dickinson was a logical choice as host to The Forum. It was among the first institutions to be awarded both NAFSA’s Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization and ACE’s Promising Practices Award. Education abroad is a hallmark of Dickinson’s curriculum and a chief reason that students enroll. The college offers instruction in thirteen foreign languages and operates an impressive network of its own study abroad programs. Nearly 60% of its students, including strikingly high numbers from underrepresented groups and science majors, study abroad.

The lessons learned over the 8 years of The Forum being hosted on the Dickinson campus should prove helpful to other higher education organizations and institutions seeking to establish a similar partnership. They include:

  • Be sure that there is a shared mission and some overlap in expertise. The Forum is not simply an “add on” to Dickinson’s operations but rather a partner in a high priority area. Moreover, both staffs speak the same language and operate with similar understandings, and this enhances quality for both partners. In sum, just as new resources from each partner make for successful collaboration, so too do overlap both in expertise and aims.
  • Establish leadership from the top to sustain the partnership. The leadership of both Dickinson and The Forum meet regularly; they know and understand each other. Rather than leave the collaboration to subordinates, leaders on both sides are engaged directly. This is more than a collegial exchange; it is a way for both sets of leaders to demonstrate and deepen their commitment to sustaining what has been and continues to be an outstanding example of a higher education partnership.
  • Make the partnership more than merely a mechanical one. The Forum benefits from its Dickinson campus location in multiple ways: Forum staff are in close touch with the day-to-day realities of higher education and study abroad; Dickinson faculty and staff contribute global expertise to the Forum’s work; and student interns (most of whom have studied abroad) assist with office operations, conferences, and special projects. And the campus is a hospitable, cost-effective place to host meetings of the Forum Board, Council, committees and working groups. Dickinson benefits by The Forum providing education abroad resources, expertise, and educational and training opportunities to its faculty and staff.
  • Create a financially viable model for both partners. While The Forum is an independent and separate 501 (c) (3) non-profit membership association, Dickinson provides services which would be difficult and more costly for the Forum to create on its own. While the Forum pays Dickinson an amount equivalent to its staff salaries and benefits, its staff are treated as college employees, giving them HR services and access to a large benefits pool. Pooling similarly enriches contracted services such as printing, telephone, and mail. The college provides, at no cost to the Forum, offices complete with furnishings, computers, and other equipment. According to the most recent audit, in-kind services provided by Dickinson are valued over $75,000/year. The Forum also invests its reserves in the Dickinson endowment portfolio. The investment return of 16% over the past seven years (totaling over $200,000) would have been difficult to match otherwise. Dickinson, in turn, benefits from its hosting of The Forum. The Forum partially funds a shared position in Dickinson’s Office of Institutional Research. And since relocating to Dickinson, the Forum has donated $85,000 to the college to fund student research projects abroad. Less tangibly, the Forum enhances the college’s brand for leadership in global education.
  • Be open to collaborations that were not envisioned originally as part of the partnership. The Forum and Dickinson have worked together in areas entirely unanticipated when the partnership formed. For example, research collaboration has facilitated the Forum’s Critical Incident Database, a groundbreaking project that reports on incidents that occur on education abroad programs. Similarly, The Forum last year established a Special Collection for education abroad historical materials within the Dickinson library archives. The collection, managed jointly by the Forum and Dickinson and sustained by an endowment gift from the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) and the AIFS Foundation, is an important, fully accessible resource for scholars, also providing internships for Dickinson students to catalog and index the materials.
  • Be modest in expectations and resist the temptation to overreach. This particularly in regard to imagined cost cutting. In hopes of savings, for instance, the partners initially and wrongly thought the positions of Forum President and Dickinson Global Education Director could be shared. While this was an effective approach initially, it became clear over time that it was not tenable in the long-term. Instead, the nonmonetary benefits of collaboration have proven of greatest worth.

As institutions and organizations continue to face the challenge of offering excellent value in a higher education landscape in which costs continue to rise, collaborative partnerships can provide a path forward. When both partners are committed to the same goals, and have strong, creative and sustained leadership, it can be a partnership that benefits both.

Brian Whalen is president and Chief Executive Officer of The Forum on Education Abroad. Neil Weissman is provost at Dickinson College.