Competition through cooperation in American higher education



By the end of the 20th Century, a number of American colleges and universities – often in close geographical proximity – began to look for ways to cooperate. Regional college-based consortia emerged in a number of places and took a variety of forms. New relationships emerged with institutional leaders looking to move beyond the lobbying provided by the national and state-based higher education associations.

Today, a number of these groups survive. Additionally, some state higher education associations have developed robust member service programs and unified research policy shops. And colleges and universities have established new patterns of engagement based upon joint sponsorships, program development, administrative efficiencies, faculty development and general economies of scale.

The rationale depends upon the motivation. But perhaps the most interesting and farsighted arguments emerged among the private colleges and universities in places like the Lehigh Valley in the 1990s. For these institutions, the approach was a simple appeal for competition through cooperation.

Led by the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges (LVAIC), the group developed a platform and infrastructure, with success varying upon the time and the quality and interests of the leadership. The argument was most effective perhaps because the intellectual underpinnings were so sensible. Senior leadership in the Lehigh Valley asked what they could do in common by moving beyond politics to areas where mutual cooperation strengthened each institution. The programs that developed were home grown and reflected the interests and sense of time and place at each institution.

The Lehigh Valley approach became a kind of gold standard against which to measure how good intentions become programs. As these partnership strategies emerged, some foundations – most notably led by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – provided support for institutions wrestling with retiree costs, administrative efficiencies and economies of scale. Mellon’s recent decision to provide a significant grant to a group of highly selective colleges across Pennsylvania to promote cooperative programs admirably continues these efforts.

In an important way, the Mellon grant reflects both the inward tensions and external pressures faced by American colleges and universities. The fact is that most higher education institutions have reached an end to comprehensive fees based upon tuition charges that run nearly two percent above inflation. As one president noted to me, you can tell the category of the institution by the sticker price promoted by the school. Among most private colleges, for example, those over $60,000 per annum offer a level of services very different from colleges priced in the $40,000 category.

Competition is now highly stratified with college strategic and financial plans at many full of objectives designed to promote aspirational jumps to “the next level.” At most traditional colleges, there is insufficient planning to offer efficient programming with verifiable assessment metrics at reasonable, sustainable pricing.

Moderating tuition cannot happen when debt load, fundraising, tuition discounting, antiquated management practices, and weak governance further debilitate the case for the realignment of money, programs and aspirations.

It’s easy to think that an important ingredient to any solution would be to partner with other colleges and universities to hold costs down.

If only it were so easy.

First, there is the question of territory. College and university management – particularly at the mid-manager level – can be exceedingly provincial and turf-oriented. How can two nursing programs, for example, compete within the same partnership arrangement? Does sharing language faculty across a consortium lessen a commitment to support faculty at home? Do common off-campus learning experiences dilute the special nature of the residential learning experience offered?

Second, there is a lack of understanding about how to proceed. In a competitively charged environment, where do you start after you have purchased paper and library books, looked at joint leasing, and examined common programming formats? More important, who’s in charge with enough time, influence and authority to make change happen?

Third, is the time invested and seed money needed worth the energy devoted to the project? With constrained budgets, it’s sometimes hard to imagine why limited resources should be placed on perspectives broader than the college or university.

If these obstacles are real, the answer to the “why” compete through cooperation is clear.

Fundamentally, it comes down to a simple fact. The options have run out.

Despite somewhat improved state appropriations, public institutions are moving past “state supported” to “state located.” The efforts underway in Pennsylvania to dismantle the state system, for instance, breaking off the strongest state institutions into the rechristened “state related” category enjoyed already by Penn State illustrates how tight finances can create myopic educational policy.

Among research universities, federal grants support cooperative programming on “big issue” research that cuts across state lines. Partnerships are a key to building the research brand.

At the level and size of most private colleges, tuition discounting is almost fifty percent of the sticker price advertised yet nearly half of these institutions did not meet their enrollment targets.

How we finance higher education is just not working. Indeed, unbridled competition without cooperation is damaging the case for higher education. Developing broad-based program, administrative, and assessment partnerships is at best a partial solution to strengthen and support higher education. But cooperating from a better defined and more commonly understood foundation in key areas is a step in the right direction.

It may be one of the few ways to make sure that there are more worthy winners than weakened losers as higher education continues to evolve.