The “share economy”, sometimes referred to as the collaboration economy, has been taking the world by storm for the past 5 years.

Sharing resources isn’t a new concept – in fact it’s somewhat similar to a concept that the higher education industry is already very familiar with: unions. Coming together and sharing resources has been a tactic that people, groups, and companies have done for decades. However, with the success of share-based companies like Uber and Airbnb, other industries are beginning to get more creative in the ways that they share resources.

When most people think “share economy”, they might think of “letting another person use something you own while you’re not using it” – like a room or house on Airbnb. However, the idea around the share economy is more than that – it’s about giving people the ability to “use services when and where they want them”.

Hundreds of new companies have sprouted up over the past five years based on this model, including things like Coworking spaces, freelancing sites like Upwork, and clothing companies like Rent the Runway. The idea behind it all is to give people the ability to get the most out of one resource, whether that’s an office space, a contract worker, a dress, or a car.

In higher education, this idea has led to the start of “University Networks”. It’s no secret that tuition costs have been rising across the country, contributing to rising student debt. Jeffrey Selingo, the founding director of the Arizona State/Georgetown University Academy of Innovative Higher Education Leadership, notes that many schools have tried to combat this through raising additional donation dollars or by recruiting out-of-state students to help contribute to the bottom line. As Jeffrey puts it “they’re focus is mostly on revenue, not costs”.

So, how do universities cut costs? Operating and maintaining a college or university can be very costly with all the student services, administration systems, and custom software. Many schools opt for enterprise software contracts or administration systems, which can sometimes be more than they need. This begs the questions – is there room for sharing and collaboration?

The answer is yes. Jeffrey recently published a study around the idea of “Networked University”, where universities partner together to share resources. Several of these partnerships have already formed around the US and in Europe. Universities are finding that by teaming up, they can improve resources, cut costs, and learn from peers. For some institutions, like public state universities, a natural network is formed that allows for shared resources. However, what about private institutions? Or institutions that are looking to partner around resources that the public system isn’t offering?

That’s where these networks or partnerships come into play. Below, we outline four examples of university networks that are helping member universities and colleges cut costs and improve their services and reach overall.


1. To Share Learnings, Resources, and Software

Unizin was formed with the goal of improving education technology through sharing content, collaborating on digital solutions, and researching learning outcomes. Founded by Colorado State University in 2014, Unizin is now made up of 25 institutions (and 900,000 students) that are working to develop the next generation of learning tools to create the most effective learning environment. By collaborating on research and development, they are hoping to create tools that are a better fit for learning and teaching needs compared to what current third-party vendors provide.

Some of the things that have come out of this partnership include a collaborative content ecosystem where member institutions can share content, an open-source book content management system, and a data platform that was created specifically for the needs of higher ed institutions.


2. To Save Costs

With student debt at an all time high, institutions are well aware that something needs to be done about high tuition prices. As mentioned above, one way to help lower tuition is to find ways to cut costs.

The Associated Colleges of the South, a group of 16 private liberal arts colleges, came together in order to collaborate on international programs, digital learning initiatives, and even joint purchase agreements. In an effort to cut costs, they’ve come together in an agreement to share one national law firm based in West Virginia. Institutions will still be expected to use their local law firms and in-house teams for state issues, but the law firm will provide preventative legal advice and help navigate complex legal services like federal compliance and international admissions to the partner institutions. The group’s leader, R. Owen Williams, believes collaborative agreements like these are the key to adapting and thriving in the new higher ed ecosystem.


3. To Promote a Mission

The idea of “strength in numbers” has been used around the world to shed light on important issues and to bring about change. That’s why the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities came together to represent private, nonprofit higher educations institutions on public policy issues in DC. Representing over 1000 member institutions, the organization acts as the voice for important issues like student tax aid policy and government regulation. They meet with policymakers, track campus trends, conduct research, and advise members on regulatory developments that may impact their institution. Without this organization, it’s unlikely that private, nonprofit institutions would have access to this kind of information or this kind of support for causes important to them.


4. To Share Resources for Students

For small, private institutions with less than 5,000 students each year, providing a wide variety of resources to students and faculty can be costly and challenging. That’s why in 1965, five institutions in Massachusetts came together to form Five Colleges, Incorporated. Not only are these five institutions close in proximity, but they also have a strong focus on liberal arts.

Because of their locations, these institutions are able to share educational resources like a joint automated library system, joint departments, and inter-campus transportation. After over 50 years, this network is still going strong and member institutions reach their goals and initiatives.

So how can your institution get started? Get talking. Find out internally what your pain points are, what you’re lacking, and what you can bring to the table. Once you know what you’re looking for in a partnership, you can then brainstorm other institutions that may be looking for similar resources or benefit from a partnership with you. For example, are you looking to bring a new CRM to your campus, but it’s out of budget? Other institutions are probably on the same boat – all you need to do is communicate!

For years, the higher education industry has been plagued with phrases like “We Can’t”, “That won’t work”, or “It’s not in the budget”. By coming together and forming partnerships or networks, institutions can work to continue to compete in the ever-changing education industry.