Higher education institutions are often associated with high tuition costs, extensive degree requirements and massive lecture halls packed with students looking to earn a degree that will help them land a role in their field of choice after graduation. On the other hand, learning and development (L&D) is typically associated with comprehensive onboarding programs, on-the-job training and other initiatives designed to help employees advance their professional development after assuming the role they prepared for in college.

While there are undoubtedly many differences between higher education and corporate training, they may be more similar than they are different. The common denominator? Learning and growth.

Nicole Lembo, manager of academic programs at JetBlue, says it would be “really great” to bring together the traditional college experience and the traditional work experience more effectively. After all, partnering with a university and/or educational course provider will lead to a “stronger, more educated workforce,” giving employees access to educational opportunities that may have previously been inaccessible. But, like any relationship, successful partnerships between companies and higher education institutions don’t happen on their own. They take a commitment, on both sides, to “reducing barriers to adult learning,” Lembo says.

By following the rules outlined in this article, organizations can help ensure their university partnership is successful in achieving a more knowledgeable workforce and, as a result, a more robust bottom line.

Rule No. 1: Communication Is Key

A successful partnership starts with effective communication. After all, higher education institutions can’t deliver impactful learning experiences if they don’t know what their corporate partner is looking for. Companies must first identify, and then communicate, organizational skills gaps so that their university partner can respond accordingly.

For example, Durham Technical Community College’s corporate education department works with local businesses to “assess training needs and develop a plan tailored to their organization,” says Beth Payne, dean of corporate services at the N.C. institution. By “staying connected” with their corporate partners, Payne says, their department acts almost as an “extension of their training team” by offering additional resources, scheduling flexibility, content, facilitators and materials.

Communication is also a core of what makes JetBlue Scholars’ (Jet Blue’s education benefits program) partnership with Thomas Edison State University successful. Although employees do have to pay for any courses taken at Thomas Edison State University out of pocket, Lembo says Jet Blue is in constant communication with the university to help learners transfer previously earned college credit hours and find ways to keep the “financial burden” as small as possible. In addition, employees looking to learn a new skill or refresh their knowledge, but not work toward a full degree, can do so for free through one of the company’s various third-party course providers.

Effective communication ensures that a company and its university partner are aligned on the partnership’s strategic goals, leading to an increased return on investment (ROI).

Rule No. 2: Be Willing to Compromise

For a partnership to work, both companies and universities have to find a “middle ground” and be willing to compromise, Lembo says. For example, while an organization may want to put its employees through a particular course or program, the university may have specific guidelines and/or restrictions on which courses they can offer. An effective partnership requires both parties to remain open to innovative solutions. It also requires flexibility, which is essential for employees juggling college courses and a full-time job — not to mention any additional responsibilities at home.

Thankfully, many higher education institutions are working to make learning accessible to adult learners by offering online and/or hybrid classes, night courses, and part-time enrollment options and by designing courses with adult learners in mind. Brandman University, for example, follows a curriculum model referred to as “iDEAL,” or instructional design for engaged adult learning, which “blends the best practices of teaching, curriculum design and the latest technologies to give students a competitive edge in today’s technology-driven, networked world.”

Flexibility enables companies, and universities, to “meet people where they are, with the right training at the right time,” Payne says.

Rule No. 3: Be Agile

With unemployment at an all-time high due to the coronavirus pandemic, Jeffrey Groeber, founder and chief executive officer of Leif, an income share agreements (ISA) platform, says, “We are seeing an overwhelming need to retrain and reskill learners for next-generation jobs.” Accessible education and training, he says, are “important to ensure that the skills gap does not widen.” Organizations and their university partners must remain agile, so that when needs shift, they can upskill their employees accordingly.

All companies should train their workforce to stay competitive — especially during times of crisis. However, organizations in fast-paced industries, such as software development and information technology (IT), especially benefit from offering education benefits to employees, who need to “stay current in [their] ever-evolving field,” Groeber says.

Durham Technical College’s corporate education department helps companies remain agile by “rapidly developing relevant, customized training” to address their “highest-priority workforce training needs,” says Doug Aitkin, the department’s director. After local companies report the skills gaps they’re seeing within their organizations, the department can “plan for long-term curriculum development and ensure future college offerings are relevant to workforce pipeline needs,” Aitkin says.

Through effective communication, a willingness to compromise and agility, companies and universities can work together to ensure employees have the skills and knowledge they need to help not only reach business goals but exceed them.