In recent years, higher education has been challenged by corporations to evolve and adapt to the needs of the current and future workforce. Employers are looking for workers who are prepared for the challenges facing today’s workforce, and low unemployment rates mean employees are choosing flexible education options that allow them to take advantage of a healthy job market. Further, businesses are using employer tuition assistance as a recruitment and retention tool and not just workforce development.

Demands on higher education

These non-traditional programs expanded to meet students literally wherever they were through online learning formats.

Until recently, the adult student was the focus of workforce development. Students wanted relevant, meaningful learning experiences that prepared them for careers and leave room for flexibility, full-time jobs, and family. They wanted education to change their lives, not consume their lives.

Today, it isn’t just students who are demanding alternative pathways to education and training. Employers are now expressing an even greater desire to see today’s workforce trained in the most efficient ways possible. Employers need workers whose education translates into skills needed on the job tomorrow, as well as workers who possess the skill to adapt and grow as the needs of the corporation evolve.

Employers now more than ever are investing in their workforce to increase employees’ competencies and skills. So, instead of corporations simply accepting the programs offered by colleges and universities, institutions are adapting the options they offer to meet the continual needs of the workforce.

The history of partnerships

The first step in this evolution was a partnership between school and corporation that offered onsite learning, followed not long after by online learning. Indiana Wesleyan University was an early pioneer in both of these type of partnerships. In onsite settings, classes and professors are available to students from inside factories and office buildings. This close-up vantage point allows the institution to discern the internal needs of the organization and tailor students’ educational experience to their employer’s distinct needs.

These non-traditional programs expanded to meet students literally wherever they were through online learning formats. Online learning offers multiple benefits to students and employers simply by being flexible: money saved by lower tuition rates, money earned by keeping a full-time job, better work-life balance and curriculum that’s directly applicable to the workforce.

The future of partnerships

Though new and innovative at the time, both onsite and online learning formats were still built around the university’s desire to standardize learning, and preset curricula no longer meets the rapid change in educational needs within corporations. So, instead of pushing cookie-cutter programs, colleges and universities now need to allow employers the opportunity to give input in the design and curriculum of the programs, meaning programs must be customized to corporate and workforce needs.

To accomplish this, institutions need to be more than providers; they need to be partners. With human knowledge expanding at an exponential rate, institutions cannot simply repeat the earlier models of distance and online education. Since learning now occurs from a variety of sources with multiple methods, universities and corporations must broker this knowledge to develop more fully comprehensive learning experiences.

But how can higher education keep driving this evolution? Typically, the answer is technological, but these answers often overlook the human dimension. The answer also lies in strategic partnerships with employers, student employees, alumni and the local community.

A closer look

Employers: Even without a physical presence at a corporation, higher education can maintain relationships with employers using liaisons and focus groups to develop curriculum in partnership with business. Maximizing this relationship, universities can determine the corporation’s needs and develop an effective learning experience. In collaboration with the company’s key leadership, universities can determine relevant curricula, tuition discounts and other benefits.

Student employees: Strong relationships with student employees can be mutually beneficial for higher education and the company. Focused programs in partnership with the company can increase student ownership in the company’s future interests by helping students visualize their greater contribution to the organization. Many student employees also develop the capacity to become lifelong learners through purposeful conversations about learning.

Alumni: Alumni emerge from these collaborative programs with a deeper understanding of higher education. Combined with their workforce experience, they can help influence future curriculum, methods of instruction, learning format and more. With a vibrant, active alumni network, institutions and corporations can benefit from a greater level of affinity when the partnership is strong.

Local community: Community development often hinges on several key factors, like employment, education, socioeconomic factors and more. A community with a more highly educated and skilled workforce can lean more heavily into community development. When higher education partners with the community, everyone benefits from this relationship and its successes.

No longer functioning in isolation, the rise of flexible, practical education solutions is transforming how corporations are meeting their talent needs and closing the education gap. Partnerships between higher education and corporations will likely continue to be key solutions to the problem of relevance in higher education. As a senior administrator in higher education, this means a lot more listening and less talking, activities that higher education often reverses.