Fly the Friendly Skies of United Universities

Colleges have often been compared to airlines in how they price their product because of the discounts higher-education institutions offer on tuition through merit aid. Passengers on an airplane and students in a classroom pay vastly different prices for the same journey, and most people don’t talk about what they paid with their seatmates or classmates.

It’s not a joy to fly these days, so colleges probably don’t want to take too many cues from the airline industry. But one strategy the airlines have employed might be worth copying in higher ed: forming alliances. The so-called code-share agreements have created networks of airlines under the Star Alliance, Sky Team, and OneWorld names.

Under the alliance agreements, the airlines cooperate on departure times and routes, share airport facilities, and have reciprocal frequent-flier benefits. In some cases, the agreements, which are reviewed by the federal government to avoid antitrust concerns, are precursors to outright mergers.

Mergers are rare in higher ed because alumni, lawmakers, and other constituencies don’t want to see their college lose its identity. But why can’t colleges form deep alliances with one another, as the airlines have done? Neighboring colleges have long teamed up on nonacademic operations, sharing police forces or purchasing offices. We have athletic conferences, but there has been little cooperation, if any, on the academic side when it comes to individual courses and degree programs.

One of the more interesting aspects of the recent push for massive open online courses is that institutions that compete on every other level—for students, faculty members, foundation grants, and federal research dollars—are cooperating on a platform to offer free online courses to the masses. Coursera and edX, which bring together dozens of colleges, could be early examples of deeper alliances to come in higher ed.

Collaborations are no longer limited to colleges in close proximity. Advances in technology can now link together institutions that are separated by thousands of miles. Under the alliance model, groups of colleges could align their course catalogs each semester, much as airlines do their schedules each travel season, so that not every institution in the network would need to offer courses that only a few students on each campus might need to complete a degree.

Eventually, academic alliances might allow colleges to pare back small departments so that there was little overlap between colleges in the network. Students could start at any campus in an alliance but have access to a much more robust collection of courses. Individual colleges in the alliance could put most of their academic resources toward making a few academic programs distinctive and leave the rest to their partners.

And not everything would need to happen virtually. The networks could allow for the free flow between campuses of faculty members and students, who might find research opportunities or internships more readily near some institutions than others in an alliance.

One existing consortium of private colleges is already thinking in the direction of greater cooperation. The group, the New American Colleges and Universities, is considering a strategy for sharing online courses its members offer. The proposal, which is still being shaped by presidents of the alliance’s members, would have the 21 colleges in the group contribute five online courses to a catalog that students on any of their campuses could take for credit at their home institution. Faculty members on each campus would agree that the courses satisfied their curricular requirements.

“It’s sort of like a free-trade zone,” explains Thomas A. Kazee, president of the University of Evansville, an institution in the consortium. “The presidents have become convinced that we must do a better job of leveraging the collective resources of our institutions.”

Of course, such alliances would offer both risks and rewards. On the plus side, they could allow colleges to cut costs and differentiate themselves by focusing on distinctive programs in attracting students and faculty members.

But they also would raise plenty of questions, including one that strikes at the heart of American higher ed: What’s the value of a degree from an individual college if much of a student’s work is done elsewhere? And what happens if colleges align their programs only to see institutions—perhaps the stronger ones—leave a weaker alliance for greener pastures, much like the big athletic conferences have shifted in recent years?

Airline-industry alliances can shift, but such changes don’t really affect the ability of a passenger to get from Point A to Point B. In higher ed, the stakes of academic alliances are higher. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider how colleges can more deeply cooperate on the academic side of their operations.

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