This article first appeared in Academic Leader on April 15, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

An irony of higher education is that as college degree attainment has become more common and necessary for employment and economic growth, governmental investment has declined. Many state legislatures have reduced their support for higher education to cope effectively with problems in K-12 education as well as the increased costs of elderly populations and the withdrawal of federal funds from mandated activities.

While the University of Michigan and a few other flagship institutions have found new ways to finance their missions under significantly reduced state funding, this has not been the case for many regional state institutions and even less for small colleges and universities in rural areas and small towns. To continue to achieve their missions, they must find new financial and resource partners. This means that academic affairs leadership— with participation from the faculty, alumni, and students— must actively and aggressively build alliances and networks of support with partners not traditionally committed to or involved with higher education. Only a complete and comprehensive effort will allow sustainability of academic excellence, educational opportunity, recognition, and respect for higher education’s contributions to the economy and the larger society.

What kinds of alliances and networks of support are needed?

There are three different kinds of alliances and networks that need active pursuit. They must begin within the institution in terms of new patterns of alliances and support between faculty and students, academic departments, and peer-to-peer learning strategies and activities. These internal activities need to be enriched by a systematic and thorough approach to build alliances with businesses, government agencies, and non-profit organizations that will employ graduates and have strong connections to the academic offerings of a specific institution.

Local alliances and networks not only create low-cost resource expansions for the higher education community, but they also enhance reputation, respect, and student recruitment and retention to institutions visibly promoting them. Finally, all institutions need to selectively connect with the dynamism of higher education as a community of scholars. This will entail having faculty alliances across institutions professionally as well as increased participation and visibility in regional, national, and professional bodies that inform what goes on in the classroom as well as accredit institutions and professional disciplines. Not creating alliances and networks of support through faculty and administrators in these bodies of influence beyond the primary geographic location of an institution will greatly limit an institution’s ability to anticipate changes in the higher education marketplace, educational innovations, technological advancements, and changes in the perceived value of college degrees in a timely fashion.

Some select internal alliances and networks of support to pursue

Within the internal institutional environment, there should be a promotion of interdisciplinary activities between academic programs to a significant degree. Team teaching should be promoted and financed. An emphasis on peer-to-peer learning and teaching should expand across the institution wherever feasible and proven effective. Team learning should be promoted as well as individual learning and academic achievement. Extra-curricular learning and a positive affirmation of learning achieved through residence halls and athletic teams needs to be highlighted. Finally, academic spaces across the campus need to be assigned to both shared learning activities of teams and individualized learning spaces for students who need more stimulation beyond the classroom and the required curriculum.

Some select external alliances and networks of support to pursue

Local alliances and networks of support:Every institution needs to take a strategic review of possible partners in their local area. This review may be limited to the city or region in which the institution exists or extend across the entire state.

It’s important to consider all businesses, governmental agencies, and non-profit organizations that could benefit or have benefited from the institution’s graduates and academic programs. If one can make a credible and sustainable case for an alliance or network of support, it should be pursued and become part of the institution’s branding and marketing efforts. Such efforts will achieve increased resources for the institution in terms of student internships and field experiences, service-learning activities, grants, shared teaching and learning resources, and reduced capital costs for equipment and facilities through genuine partnerships. Other higher education institutions in the area should also be considered as potential partners for select educational activities enhancing both institutions’ academic programs and student learning opportunities. Depending on the location of an institution, agricultural organizations, mining, and science organizations may be particularly useful partners. And no institution should ignore building alliances with local high schools that supply incoming students each year.

National and international alliances and networks: Some national and international alliances and networks are more critical for institutions to pursue. One cannot invest in every professional accreditation for instance and get a good return on investment. Also, belonging to national or international organizations where nearly all institutions are required to join or do join is of little value. However, participation in joint research projects can be very useful. Also, participation in joint grant applications is another form of beneficial activity. Active participation in and leadership positions in teacher, discipline, and administrator organizations and societies is critical for visibility, recognition, and regard in the competitive marketplace. Study abroad programming can be more robust and financially less draining in alliances with other non-competing institutions of higher education. Finally, in a world of ever-increasing competition, an effective presence and use of social media and mass media is critical.

Benefits from using alliances and support networks

Every institution can benefit from creating and sustaining alliances and support networks. Resource sharing can cut operational costs. Academic opportunities and quality can be advanced by shared academic programs and facilities. Alliances and networks help retain and sustain faculty and staff. They create better opportunities to attract and retain the highest quality students. They increase institutional flexibility by building an expanded view of mission. They increase institutional productivity potential. And they are a vital source to aid in the retention of students to graduation from the increased opportunities for learning and development they create.

Henry Smorynski earned his doctorate in government from Georgetown University. He had 40 years of teaching and administrative experience serving 10 higher education institutions in five states. He has taught more than 45 different public policy, international relations, public administration, health administration, and political science courses. He has led academic administrative teams as dean, vice president for academic affairs, and provost for twenty-two years at five different institutions.