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Building Successful University-Corporate Partnerships

Private: Dr. Richard L. Irwin

Employer & Educator Relationships

August 04, 2021

6 min read

The following is an opinion piece published by Dr. Richard L. Irwin Executive Dean of UofM Global, Academic Innovation and the College of Professional and Liberal Studies at the University of Memphis. Dr. Irwin earned an Ed.D. in Sport Administration from the University of Northern Colorado. (CPLS)

Private: Dr. Richard L. Irwin

Dr. Richard L. Irwin Executive is the Dean of UofM Global, Academic Innovation and the College of Professional and Liberal Studies at the University ...

Relationships between higher education and the corporate world have advanced, especially post-pandemic. At the University of Memphis, we have been fortunate to collaborate with great corporations including FedEx, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the City of Memphis, and Nike. We have come a long way and, in the process, have learned a great deal about building successful university-corporate partnerships. While we are still learning, it’s great to have a forum to share our insights with stakeholders in the global future of education.

Listen; then keep listening

The first lesson we learned was to listen to the prospective corporate partner.  We needed to hear about their challenges, needs, and expectations.  Were they encountering an employee retention challenge?  Or was it an incumbent employee skill gap?  We knew it was important to design a professional development program that fit these needs.  Likewise, who was the target audience?  What were their personal, professional and/or academic needs?

While multiple partners shared an interest to use their educational benefits program to combat employee attrition, others have preferred to focus on the need for credit as well as non-credit training to fill specific organizational skill demands.  Moreover, all of our partners sought programs that provided access, support and scalability for every interested and eligible employee, regardless of educational history.

"Essentially, this program, now known as the Prep Academy, focusing on using relevant content to enhance academic success, enables students that don’t meet our admissions requirements on paper to take advantage of the company higher educational benefits support and initiate or rejuvenate their path to a college degree."

While UofM Global, our fully online platform of more than one hundred academic programs and robust student support services addressed access from a time and place perspective, to accommodate eligible employee admission to the University required some work.  This led us to custom build a fully-online, competency-based, risk-free (unlimited trials), self-paced, earned admission onboarding process. Essentially, this program, now known as the Prep Academy, focusing on using relevant content to enhance academic success, enables students that don’t meet our admissions requirements on paper to take advantage of the company higher educational benefits support and initiate or rejuvenate their path to a college degree. 

Today, over 100 people that would not have enrolled under normal circumstances have been successfully welcomed to the UofM through earned admission thanks to the onboarding process. Given that the Prep Academy curriculum is comprised of four existing courses from the UofM undergraduate catalog, Prep completers are awarded twelve lower division credits upon admission, as well.  Perhaps most importantly, Prep completers have achieved a 3.2 GPA and a 92% success rate in all coursework following their admission to the UofM.    

Discuss, learn, and listen again

We continuously monitor our corporate partner offerings to determine how best to support these programs and students.  We immediately realized that we needed a knowledgeable staff member who could help students manage their budget, often comprised of company-provided tuition assistance as well as any eligible federal or state financial aid. 

Likewise, in order to accommodate the rolling inquiries and enhance immediate engagement, we collaborated with academic units across campus to offer a select group of early/open access courses. 

We also realized that as excited as our educational benefits recipients were about the opportunity to earn a degree at little or no cost, the timetable for a bachelor’s degree became a bit daunting.  In other words, intermediate milestones would help keep them maintain momentum.  So, we collaborated with our colleagues at Southwest Tennessee Community College to embed an Associate Degree in the program offerings to address the need for segmented wins as students pursue their executive education.

Our advice - be realistic

At the end of the day, corporate partnerships don’t work for every institution, and some partnerships aren’t scalable. Be realistic and build on what you have without trying to be all things to all people. For instance, to address the skills gap for one of our corporate partners, the UofM had to develop new non-credit offerings in healthcare (Certified Nurse Assistant and Surgical Technologist) with their help. Not every university has the resources to meet that type of challenge.

Our advice - scan the landscape

We were lucky to have such great corporate partners that were already close to us physically, but today’s digital world means that you don’t even have to stay within your own location. However, since the local population is very supportive of the UofM as an institution, forming our initial partnerships locally really worked for us.  Subsequently, our partnership with FedEx Express has expanded to thirteen hubs across all U.S. time zones.  Other partners have similarly scaled to out-of-market employees.   

Our advice - build on what you have

Many of the tools used to develop our corporate partner programs already existed at the UofM. 

For instance, for more than 30 years the UofM has provided experiential learning credit for college-level learning that occurred outside the classroom.  Corporate in-house learning initiatives are a great gateway for a university to collaborate with a corporate partner. These learning initiatives are often well constructed for the corporation and should be audited for college-level content. This creates a triple win situation for the corporation, the university, and ultimately the student that can translate their in-house learning efforts into credit hours towards a degree. We encourage students working through the admission process to use that time to complete and submit an experiential learning credit (ELC) portfolio.  Last year alone, more than 400 students across campus took advantage of ELC to reduce costs and accelerate degree completion.     

Similarly, our College of Professional and Liberal Studies, with a rich history of supporting adult student completion, offers a host of flexible degree options, allowing for customization that accommodates unique curriculum of value to employers and employees (manufacturing technology coupled with supply chain management), transfer credits from multiple institutions and ELC awards that may be as large of 30 credit hours.  

To recap

  1. Listen! Listen to the challenges of the corporate partner. Listen to their ideas on how you can help solve them.
  2. Have frequent, honest discussions with the administration, faculty, and staff.
  3. Be realistic and learn to say no, you can’t be all things to all people.
  4. Get started by getting to know local corporations and their current in-house learning programs and goals for higher education are.
  5. Scan the landscape and build on what you already have in place.


This was an opinion piece published by Dr. Richard L. Irwin Executive Dean of UofM Global, Academic Innovation and the College of Professional and Liberal Studies at the University of Memphis.

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