There have been several signals in the market that the models for corporate partnership programs are changing as colleges and universities apply different strategies to partner with employers. The most notable and high profile partnership announcements in the past few months have been:

While corporate partnership programs are not new to higher education, the scale of these three partnerships and the radically discounted tuition rates that provide a degree at little or no cost to employees are new. These announcements represent a compelling public relations campaign for the organizations involved and showcase these partnerships’ responsiveness to the rising cost of education. For colleges, the partnerships legitimize their online programs’ ability to meet national needs by aligning with high-profile employer brands. For employers, they solve the rising employee retention problem by incentivizing employees to stay in their jobs longer.

Results from Eduventures’ 2015 Survey of Online Enrolled Students, which surveyed more than 25,000 students across the country, corroborate the need for this strategic shift in corporate partnership programs. Only 6% of students are going back to school at the direction of their employers. In addition, 24% are currently receiving tuition assistance to fund their online education. Given these results, it is clear that employers and colleges need to change their strategies to encourage employees to utilize these offerings in order to achieve the desired impact.

For colleges and universities, corporate partnership programs present a compelling, cost effective marketing channel to attract adult learners seeking to further their careers through part-time online education. Eduventures believes that all colleges targeting adult learners should establish and maintain corporate partnership programs to drive new enrollments.

Corporate partnership programs can be developed with different types of organizations, including large for-profit corporations, local businesses, school districts and teachers unions, hospitals and healthcare systems, law enforcement agencies, local municipalities, state and federal government agencies, and non-profit organizations.

Within each of these organizations, the best points of contact are the human resource professionals in charge of employee benefits and/or corporate training. They are constantly looking for new approaches to stretch their tuition assistance (TA) budget, while providing value to their employees in order to stand out from the rest or be included on the “100 Best Companies to Work For” lists produced by Fortune and Glassdoor.

Developing the right corporate partnership programs, however, requires a strategic approach, and to effectively leveraging these relationships requires ongoing management. Here are Eduventures’ seven recommendations on how to develop successful corporate partnership programs:

  1. Evaluate your partnerships because not all corporate partnership programs are created equal. The ultimate goal is increasing the pool of prospective students that will enroll at your college or university. It is important to evaluate each of your corporate partnerships with the same approach in order to determine which yield the best results and therefore deserve more attention from your staff. We recommend developing a scoring system or rubric to consider factors such as the number of employees, amount of tuition assistance dollars per employee, restrictions (if any) on the use of tuition assistance, and access to employees to market degree programs.
  2. Profile corporate partners to find the ones that best align with your institutional mission. Given that all partnerships are not created equal, it is imperative to ensure that the company will make a good corporate partner. We recommend profiling each company to find out if its mission, organizational culture, sustainability policies, and employee benefits align with your institutional brand and mission.
  3. Offer tuition discounts related to the degree of access to employees. While you are providing a valuable service to the corporate partner, they are providing a focused marketing channel to a targeted market. We recommend incentivizing human resources to allow you to get better access to their employees (e.g., your prospective students). For example, offer a 5% discount in exchange for a listing on their website and attendance at an on-site career fair, a 10% discount in exchange for direct marketing access to their employees once a month, and a 30% discount in exchange for a guaranteed number of student enrollments.
  4. Cultivate a lasting relationship with each human resource professional. As with any human resources role, your point-of-contact is busy serving the day-to-day needs of his or her employees. We recommend that you drive the relationship by developing a clear 12-month plan of action that includes multiple touch points for employees. These touch points can include quarterly lunch and learns, attendance at in-house career fairs, facilitating mentoring meetings between key executives and current students, faculty visits to the workplace, after-hours wine and cheese receptions for current and prospective students, and award ceremonies to recognize enrollment milestones and individual student/employee accomplishments.
  5. Seek qualified adjunct faculty members from your corporate partners. There are frequent opportunities to find additional and highly qualified adjunct faculty from within the ranks of your corporate partners. For example, experienced healthcare system employees may be well suited to teach in an online nursing program. Likewise, teachers in partner school districts could teach in education programs, and local police officers could teach in criminal justice programs. While new adjuncts will need to attend training and mentoring before teaching their first course, they often attract coworkers to take their courses. We recommend hiring adjuncts from partner companies to both help reduce staffing costs and scale your programs at a much faster rate.
  6. Encourage cross-promotion that supports both parties. Make it easy for your corporate partners to market on your behalf. Provide all of the marketing materials each relationship needs to succeed by writing joint press releases, producing customized website landing pages that are pre-populated with the corporate partnership’s information to expedite enrollment, and developing customized collateral such as flyers and table tents for cafes.
  7. Create a data sharing feedback loop to collect outcomes data from your employer partners. Collecting outcomes data from graduates is a challenge for every college and university, especially in light of the ongoing gainful employment regulations. We recommend sharing your data with corporate partners and supporting employers in exchange for their data that demonstrates your programs’ impact on employee performance, satisfaction, and retention. This can solidify your corporate partnership program relationships, meet your outcomes data collection requirements, and serve as a marketing tool for prospective students.