Universities Turn To More Public-Private Partnerships To Meet Student Needs

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Universities Turn To More Public-Private Partnerships To Meet Student Needs

Observers say the arrangements with profit-seeking companies need to be considered carefully.

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Aug 19, 2022

Universities Turn To More Public-Private Partnerships To Meet Student Needs

Universities are expected to do a lot these days.

From delivering mental health options for students to growing their online programs, they have their fingers in a lot of pies.

And they need to: Experts say that the number of services that students expect from a university has grown considerably in recent years, especially in the context of increasing technological change.

Some of these needs were intensified by the pandemic. For example: the pandemic sped up the transition from in-person to online and hybrid education, something experts don’t think is going away.

“I think, fundamentally, colleges are just faced with new challenges to serve today's students,” says Shalin Jyotishi, a senior policy analyst for the think tank New America.

Colleges may not have the expertise or the financial resources to offer those services on their own, Jyotishi says.

To meet this demand, public universities are showing an increased interest in public-private partnership agreements that bring profit motives into the public sector.

Seventy-one percent of university leaders say they’re interested in expanding public-private partnerships on their campus, according to a recent survey from the Chronicle of Higher Education and P3•EDU. The effort surveyed 350 university leaders, and it was released in anticipation of the P3•EDU conference to be hosted by the University of Colorado, Denver next month.

Universities are most interested in offering telehealth and mental health services, the survey found. But there’s also an appetite for a wide range of new or expanded services, including developing campus facilities and expanding online programs. Research and development partnerships are also up.

To some experts, these trends aren’t surprising.

“It is clear that universities need help in adapting to the rate of technological change,” says Daniel Pianko, managing director at Achieve and University Ventures.

The pandemic also really intensified focus on education’s return on investment, Jyotishi says, swelling the interest in partnerships for online and workforce development.

And the number of Americans who believe that online education matches or surpasses in-person learning is growing, according to a New America survey.

Online options, in particular, may be attractive to universities looking to bring in adult learners as they face down the “enrollment cliff,” Jyotishi suggests.

Concerns About Profit-Seeking

Resource-strapped universities see working with private companies as a quick way to answer some of the challenges facing them. But letting private companies into the roost, however, raises questions about whether they're beneficial to public education.

Earlier this year, for example, the University of Eastern Michigan announced it struck a $200 million deal with Gilbane Developers to improve its student housing, giving up much of its control to the company in the process. That triggered a vote of no confidence in the university leadership.

Private companies are able to offer niche expertise, along with speed and capital, according to the reasons listed for seeking these partnerships in the Chronicle report. But they can also lead to companies putting profit first, experts warn, though they think that they can offer real benefits.

“I think [the increase in public-private partnerships is] generally helpful to everybody, so long as the contracts are negotiated well, and the services are delivered appropriately,” says Pianko of Achieve and University Ventures.

That means putting students first, Pianko says.

Pianko suggests that university leaders should be especially careful to make sure everyone’s interests are aligned when they make public-private deals.

“We should be careful that these partnerships are really advancing the needs that students have and not profit-seeking [in] new markets, which I do think is going to be an area of concern,” Jyotishi says.

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