Business Matters

Mason leads public-private partnership discussion with P3•EDU conference

George Mason University this month held a two-day conference with higher ed leaders, business executives and industry media to discuss the impact of public-private partnerships on higher education. The event drew presidents, provosts and senior leaders from more than 100 colleges and universities and included an inside look at the most talked about partnership in higher education, the Purdue University-Kaplan merger.

Purdue President Mitch Daniels and Don Graham, chairman of the Graham Holdings Company that previously owned Kaplan University, discussed how the deal came to be and the challenges they faced in forming Purdue University Global. The panel was moderated by Tony Miller, former Deputy Secretary of Education with the Obama administration and founding partner and chief operating officer for The Vistria Group.

Graham said both organizations “wanted the same thing for the same reasons at the same time.”

“We thought the best way to serve our students was with a partnership,” he said, “and when Mitch expressed interest, the music stopped.”

The conference touched on a broad range of topics, including potential financial and reputational risks, as well as the many inherent logistical challenges in areas such as housing and infrastructure, marketing and enrollment.

Other sessions explored virtually every other facet of higher education partnerships, including online education and international student recruitment, enrollment and support. University presidents shared successful ventures and opportunities that await, provosts examined the impact on faculty and curriculum and chief financial officers and private investors weighed risks and rewards. Global student engagement was also examined.

“We look forward to having a conversation about the potential of these type of partnerships, about the do’s and the don’ts, about the best practices,” Mason President Ángel Cabrera told an attentive Founders Hall audience. “Where we can put our minds together to think creatively about how the power of private organizations and the values, mission and capabilities of great universities together can help us deliver on the mission that we all share.”

These partnerships could allow colleges and universities to focus on academic instruction, learning outcomes and career success, while leveraging the necessary capital and technology needed for financial stability and continued ability to fulfill their educational mission of making higher education more accessible and affordable.

The timing of these talks comes as institutions of higher education grapple with serving a growing number of nontraditional students with diverse needs in the face of dwindling state financial support. There are 31 million people nationwide who have earned some college credit, but never completed their degree, including more than one million in Virginia alone. Working with this under-served segment of higher education and providing them a pathway to a better life by helping them finish their degrees is the stated mission for public universities.

The challenge has always been to make sure those opportunities remain easily accessible and affordable.

Working together with the private sector might be one way to do it, although retaining academic control was the key to any future partnerships, many of the educators present said.

Mason plans to host another such summit exploring public-private partnerships next year.

“As university relationships with private companies evolve and potentially expand, success in large measure depends on an institution’s ability to manage the partnership effectively,” said Michelle Marks, Mason’s vice president for Academic Innovation and New Ventures. “If done correctly, these partnerships—whether they are administrative or academic in nature—may be one path to a more sustainable future.”