What Business Can Do

A New Level of Business Engagement in Higher Education

Business involvement in colleges and universities is by no means new. Business leaders have long served on university boards of trustees, participated in college and university capital campaigns, and endowed scholarships. Companies have underwritten campus construction projects, partnered with community colleges to develop employee training programs, or helped staff committees to review the development of new technical curricula. This involvement is truly laudable, insofar as it has benefited individual institutions, businesses, and students.

Despite their value, however, such relatively limited efforts alone will not bring about widespread improvements in the quality and accessibility of higher education. According to an American Electronics Association (AeA) report on higher education in Washington State, "Business support for higher education has been very useful and highly valued by recipients in many instances. It has also been diffuse and unfocused. Most importantly, it has not resulted in any significant improvement in the overall workforce shortage."26

By assessing statewide performance rather than anecdotal improvements, Measuring Up has set a new standard for success for higher education. In doing so, they have brought new opportunities and challenges to light. Now that business has a better, more complete vision of how much it needs to achieve in the coming years, it cannot remain content with episodic victories.

The following pages offer some general principles for more coordinated business engagement in higher education, along with a number of strategies for implementing initiatives that satisfy these principles. In addition, they present examples of current or recent business-led higher education initiatives that demonstrate these strategies. The fact that most of these initiatives are too new to yield much data on their own effectiveness attests to just how recent this type of business engagement in higher education really is-and just how much work remains to be done. That said, they can serve as models for businesses that seek to help higher education measure up to 21st-century demands.


When designing new initiatives to address the looming shortage of college-educated Americans, businesses should ask themselves some fundamental questions:

  • Does the initiative address problems on multiple fronts?

    Because Measuring Up's performance categories are so interdependent, business should avoid treating them in isolation from one another. For example, projects that seek to increase participation and completion rates might address the issues of affordability and preparation as well. By taking such interrelationships into account, business leaders, educators, and policy makers can formulate effective solutions to systemic problems.

  • Can the initiative benefit many different businesses?

    Businesses that engage in the most effective higher education initiatives will likely help to educate their competitors' employees. Yet, as one higher education official has observed, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Programs intended to increase our overall store of intellectual capital will benefit all businesses in the long run. By transcending the particular concerns of one business or even one industry, such programs can help equip a broader segment of the population with a stronger overall academic foundation and thus better prepare the workforce as a whole for the inevitable changes that lie ahead.

  • Can the initiative benefit all Americans?

    As more and more businesses compete for an elite group of students, more will have to face the consequences of the impending skills gap. To expand the base of Americans possessing necessary knowledge and skills, business must promote much broader access to higher education among people of every age group, race, and socio-economic background. Where possible, business/higher education initiatives should consider the full range of postsecondary institutions that serve diverse educational needs: public and private, two-year and four-year, for-profit and not-for-profit institutions. Inordinate attention to one institutional type or delivery mechanism may simply alter the balance of power among institutions without increasing the aggregate educational benefit to all Americans.


1. Join forces with other business organizations and education groups

Collective action will always have a greater impact than actions taken in isolation. By joining with other business and education groups, businesses can:

  • Avoid duplicating the efforts of others;

  • Support worthwhile initiatives already in progress;

  • Expand the reach and impact of their own proposed initiatives;

  • Gain access to funding sources otherwise unavailable to them;

  • Gain access to larger communications structures for broader public outreach; and

  • Present a united front to legislators and policy makers.
A diverse group of business organizations has already launched higher education initiatives. This group includes:
  • Industry Associations. Industry associations such as the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and the American Electronics Association (AeA) are undertaking higher education initiatives in multiple states.

  • Chambers of Commerce. Chambers of commerce in cities as diverse as Spokane, Washington, and Cleveland, Ohio, have developed higher education policy agendas.

  • Business/Education Coalitions: A number of state-level business/education coalitions have the sole purpose of addressing higher education issues. These coalitions include, but are not limited to, the Virginia Business/Higher Education Coalition, the New Hampshire Forum on Higher Education, and the Arizona Partnership for Higher Education and Business.
Even business-led organizations that currently sponsor no higher education programs might undertake collaborative higher education projects, given sufficient support from their members. There are, for example, over a thousand business and education coalitions involved in K-12 education reform whose commitment to educational improvement might suit them for work in higher education. (For a list of these coalitions organized by state, please see the ESEA Toolkit, published by the National Alliance of Business and the Business Roundtable. The Toolkit is available for download at www.nab.com).

2. Assess national and regional needs

Before embarking on higher education initiatives in any given state, businesses should examine that state's projected education and workforce needs. Measuring Up has already provided one means of evaluating education needs. By providing state-by-state comparisons, the report cards offer a general picture of how well every state can measure up to demands that are increasingly national in scope. Because the forces of technology and global competition do not respect state borders, more and more businesses in different states will have to play by the same rules and therefore advocate for world-class educational opportunities.

That said, businesses in each state can look beyond the data presented in Measuring Up to gain a more detailed sense of where they need to target their efforts. Do the participation levels of women or minorities lag behind those of their peers ? Are working adults engaging in lifelong learning? Does the state face particularly dire skill deficiencies in particular areas, such as math and science? Some of this more detailed information on each state's performance is available from the National Center's Web site (www.highereducation.org). Other information may be available from a variety of public and private sources, or through original research.

3. Formulate clear and attainable goals

After undertaking an assessment of national and regional needs, business should fashion a clear statement of attainable goals for addressing those needs, together with a reasonable timetable for reaching those goals. While the goals and timetable should be sufficiently ambitious to inspire a concerted effort from all stakeholders, they should, of course, remain manageable. Few of the most pressing educational needs can be fully met in a year or two. Instead, sustained higher education initiatives should establish a sequence of annual goals that can motivate incremental progress toward a broader objective of universal access to quality higher education.

In addition, businesses should set only a limited number of goals for any given year. As Rick Edmonds, the former director of Florida's Business/Higher Education Partnership, observes, "If you have 27 or 55 suggestions, that's a wish list, not an action plan." By establishing a finite number of clearly formulated goals, businesses will find it easier to measure the success of their initiatives.

4. Conduct a review of relevant state policies

State policies that influence important matters-such as higher education funding mechanisms, university governance, institutional missions, and the balance between two- and four-year institutions-can profoundly affect the outcomes of business-led initiatives to improve higher education. Such initiatives can therefore benefit from a general review of current state higher education policies. In some cases, such policy audits might reveal how businesses can design their initiatives to have the greatest possible impact within the prevailing regulatory context. In others, the audits might demonstrate the need to advocate for state policy changes that advance the business community's vision for educational improvement.

5. Where possible, consider the entire educational continuum from K-12 through higher education

It has grown abundantly clear that the quality and accessibility of higher education depend in large measure on the quality of the elementary and secondary systems. Students who graduate from high school ill-prepared for the rigors of postsecondary study have a far lower chance of persisting in college than do their better-qualified peers.

Many promising business/higher education initiatives therefore include efforts to improve student preparation for college by enhancing higher education engagement in K-12 schools. Some of these initiatives involve the higher education community in the creation of meaningful standards for high school graduation. Others seek to improve schools of teacher education as a means of raising teacher quality. Still others have established college-based institutes to train effective school leaders.

6. Design replicable programs

Even when designing small-scale programs whose immediate impact might not extend beyond a single institution or local area, businesses should consider ways in which others might replicate their efforts. They should research their processes, identify central principles guiding their work, and share best practices with other organizations.

7. Consider the needs of nontraditional students

A growing share of postsecondary students does not fit the familiar model of 18- to 24-year-olds who study on traditional college campuses. Many are working adults who must study part-time. Some live far from any college campus and must therefore complete their education using distance learning technologies. A growing number already have postsecondary credentials and have gone back to school to refresh or update their skills. Many do not receive any student aid, despite serious financial need. To encourage broader participation among such nontraditional students, businesses can:

  • support lifelong learning among their own employees by defraying the cost of study or granting flextime to accommodate employees' academic schedules; and
  • support "user-friendly" educational options, such as distance-learning technologies, university extension programs, or business/education training partnerships.

    8. Support strategies for measuring student learning

    Because states cannot usefully measure learning outcomes until they identify precisely what they should measure, they must determine what essential competencies all college graduates should learn. Business can play a vital role in this process. At a time when personal, civic, and professional life all require greater quantitative literacy, reading skills, critical thinking abilities, problem-solving abilities, and communications skills, everyone will have to master core competencies and skills, regardless of their particular career trajectories. Business leaders must join with educators to define these competencies more precisely within their 21st-century context. Only then can they help in the development of assessments that will allow educators and policy makers to collect-for the first time-meaningful comparable data on student learning. This process of defining, teaching, and assessing a necessary common foundation of skills will not be easy, but it will grow increasingly unavoidable as more students, employers, and even educators demand reliable assurances of educational quality.

    The need to isolate and measure essential competencies is growing increasingly crucial within specific degree majors, especially in technical fields where constant innovation drives an accelerating pace of change. To remain in step with the knowledge economy's evolving demands while ensuring the continued relevance of their curricula, colleges and universities will have to work with business and industry to define these more technical competencies.

    9. Exhibit staying power

    The most important improvements to higher education will not occur overnight. Short-term gains in quality and access can founder on changes in political will, economic problems, or the academy's resistance to change. Indeed, the budget crisis now confronting states nationwide has slowed or perhaps even reversed some hard-won progress toward greater accessibility.

    Policy makers and business leaders alike need to avoid the short-term thinking that dooms projects from the outset. As Losing Ground: A National Status Report on the Affordability of American Higher Education suggests, this sort of thinking has contributed to the erosion of college affordability. By following careless investment in times of prosperity with reckless divestment in times of hardship, policy makers have failed to develop a sustained strategy for curbing spiraling tuition.

    Business-led initiatives that sustain long-term vision despite short-term obstacles enjoy the greatest chance of success. Motivated by a lasting commitment to improving higher education, businesses can make steady progress toward their goals while carefully measuring the return on their investment through both feast and famine. Because the need for highly educated citizens will continue to grow far into the future, business leaders, educators, and policy makers have no choice but to persevere in their improvement efforts.

    26 "Higher Education in Washington State" (Redmond WA: AeA Washington Council, 1999), 3.