Why Campus Collaborations Are Key to the Success of Student Affairs at Any Institution

Higher education is in an interesting cultural moment right now.

Just as online enrollment grows, some small colleges are closing. Public trust is also waning as people perceive the cost of enrollment outpacing its value.

As institutions navigate this new reality, it may feel natural to dig in and try to fend off the competition.

I recommend doing the opposite. We need to network and collaborate in order to better support students throughout the interconnected higher education landscape.

Professionals are already doing this sporadically at conferences and through informal connections, but the mindset needs to be consistent all year long.

Here are some actions that can be extremely beneficial for students and professionals alike.

4 Ways to collaborate

1. Invite open access to opportunity

No campus exists as an island; they are part of wider local communities that have diverse sets of needs. Closing off an institution does itself and its community a disservice.

There’s tremendous value in creating partnership opportunities and establishing goodwill with community organizations. For example, think of how incredible it is when you can offer students unique internship opportunities with local businesses that are doing great work nearby.

Without establishing goodwill between neighboring organizations, there may be friction and a sense of competition that limits the potential of everyone involved.

Imagine how a lack of opportunity — to interact with the local community right outside your campus — would impact your students. There might be constant scrutiny from local outsiders who don’t understand your campus’ culture nor goals. This could lead to fewer donors, plus community partners would miss out on some great students who could contribute awesome ideas to their organizations.

On the bright side, I’ve seen incredible results from these sort of partnerships, which can be easy for other campuses to recreate.

teamwork high five, gif

For example, I helped develop a week of socially conscious programming with various university and community stakeholders, including faculty, a local food bank, and other sustainability-oriented organizations. We also featured speakers, panels, roundtables, documentary screenings, and service projects. We hosted it at our campus to bring everyone together and to showcase our institution’s commitment to the community.

This event allowed for committed, passionate people to come together across multiple fields. Students were able to bond over their interests and network with community partners, while local organizations benefited from access to a pipeline of student talent.

2. Building connections with other institutions

Students should also feel welcome to build academic connections with neighboring institutions. This is something we can be proactive about, by reaching out to other institutions to develop.

Many institutions already have pipeline programs, such as set pathways for graduates of associate degree programs to smoothly transfer into working towards bachelor’s degrees. We can also create shared courses between institutions to broaden our learner base and to help community college students feel confident in eventually enrolling at four-year schools.

In addition to academic connections, partnerships between institutions can also involve shared shuttles around town, career fairs, or internship programs. These can create opportunities for students which might not be available at institutions that are smaller or have fewer resources.

But for us to get to this ideal collaborative place, higher education professionals need to come together and find areas where we can help each other — which brings me to my next point:

3. Engage with local learning communities

I’ve long been inspired by local higher-ed focused learning communities, such as state ACPA chapters and NASPA regions.

Similarly, this list has some other great examples of college consortiums. Many of them, like the Claremont Colleges and the Five College Consortium, embody the academic connections mentioned before. Baltimore Collegetown, in addition to frequent networking events, convenes communities of practice to encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration within functional areas.

Bringing together bright minds can create amazing results for students. All it takes is a core group of people who are committed to creating a consistent, reliable learning network. Whether it’s done virtually or in person, such a community needs to be something people can come to rely on, with a regular weekly or monthly meeting schedule.

It’s also important to identify your colleagues’ goals. Do people simply want to socialize with others who understand the unique challenges and triumphs of their work? Are they looking to learn about technology? Do they need help increasing retention?

Knowing the answers to these (and similar questions) will help you determine the best use of your time when gathering people together – such as which people to intentionally connect and how to set the stage for meaningful conversations.

You can also connect with colleagues to take advantage of the learning resources that already exist around you. A lot of people get intimidated going alone to events, including conferences, or they can’t afford to buy into a webinar on their own. But if everyone in a group decides to take part in something together, it can help make the investment worthwhile and encourage more commitment to follow through.

4. Share educational assets

Many people may already be familiar with these through Harvard Business School case studies, which are used in classrooms throughout the country. Educational assets are any piece of high-quality content that is produced for a specific learning outcome. Case studies are the most common example, but they can also be video lessons, podcasts, or recordings of speakers.

Sharing educational assets can and should be more common. Bringing together multiple offices and institutions allows for greater outcomes that perhaps no one office or institution would be able to reach alone. Students benefit and no single stakeholder has to pay as much, nor take on as much risk.

Take, for example, an institution that invests an enormous amount of time and resources into creating a training program on bystander intervention. Its creators and facilitators could bring this important training around to teams at neighboring institutions. Especially if it’s planned ahead of time, every stakeholder can invest in the initiative and eventually benefit from it.

Student affairs professionals often show and tell at conferences for this sort of thing. But we shouldn’t always rely on a game of secondhand interpretations; there can be a mutual effort to curate quality assets that are then shared by those who helped develop it.

Collaboration means that we’ll have more unique options for students. Working together is a smart, mutually beneficial way to create more positive outcomes for all involved.

We need to rethink the way we collaborate as higher ed professionals. It must go from individual moments at conferences to an ongoing, active process that leaves egos at the door, puts competition aside, and works to realize the greater potential that exists when we work together.

How have you creatively collaborated with other institutions or community partners? Tweet us @themoderncampus and HigherEd_Geek.

Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin Ramsdell (he/him) is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations. Learn how we can help get your students involved.