For decades, higher education institutions located in close proximity to one another have viewed each other as rivals more than partners, competing for students, internships, and resources. But in today’s environment—in which so many institutions share the same goals of meeting local needs, lowering costs and other barriers for students, and operating under constrained resources—more and more institutions are finding ways to work together.
Strategic partnering with local counterparts can allow institutions to find new ways of maintaining financial and program viability or find opportunities for creating together what each institution could not accomplish on its own.
Two such collaborations in Texas demonstrate how, by working together, different institutions can propel themselves and their communities into a prosperous future.
Partnering for a New Medical School
The University of North Texas Health Science Center, a graduate academic medical center located in Fort Worth and part of the University of North Texas System, was established in 1970. At the time, the legislation that established UNTHSC required that the president be a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) and prohibited the school from offering the doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree.
As demand in Texas grew for another M.D.-granting school, as opposed to a D.O.-granting school, various leaders from UNTHSC attempted to change those two pieces of legislation with no luck, says Gregory Anderson, executive vice president for finance and operations at UNTHSC. “There were clear needs in Fort Worth for an additional medical school,” Anderson says. “It was projected that the growth of the Dallas–Fort Worth area would exceed 34 percent over the next 15 years, and that one out of every four practicing physicians was over the age of 60. Texas ranked 42nd in the nation for physicians per 100,000 population.”
In 2013 and 2014, UNTHSC President Michael Williams worked to convince the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and state leadership of the need for an M.D. school in Fort Worth. However, when Williams learned that the coordinating board commissioner would not recommend that UNTHSC add an M.D. school, he knew the chances for passage in the state legislature for the requested changes were zero. After that defeat, President Williams changed course. In spring 2015, Williams met with Chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr. of Texas Christian University (TCU), a neighboring private university, to discuss his idea for a joint M.D. school.
As UNTHSC and TCU leaders examined the potential for a partnership, it became clear that each institution could provide important and unique resources. UNTHSC could leverage its existing educational and research resources, as well as its medical expertise from its osteopathic school. TCU, on the other hand, could bring financial resources to the table, including setting up a $50 million endowment for the M.D. school.
Almost immediately, leaders were convinced that a joint M.D. school could benefit both institutions and serve an important regional need. They announced their partnership in the summer of 2015 and signed their first collaboration agreement in February 2016.
The Partnership Process
UNTHSC and TCU started their collaboration by creating a vision statement, which established that the desired end product of their collaboration would be a jointly offered M.D. degree. From that vision, leaders developed a collaboration agreement, in-kind agreement, and facilities agreement, Anderson says.
Beginning in early 2016, representatives from each institution met on a biweekly basis to hammer out details and work through the plan. The provosts from both institutions, along with M.D. school teams, met every other week as they worked to add faculty and staff and address other academic issues.
At the same time, Anderson met biweekly with Brian Gutierrez, TCU vice chancellor, finance and administration, and Stuart Flynn, founding dean of the new M.D. school, to discuss next steps, financial and operations items, and any situations that needed to be addressed. For instance, one important item that required discussion was the space required to house the new M.D. school.
UNTHSC was planning construction of a new building, and the group determined that 60,000 square feet of that building would be reserved for the M.D. school, Anderson says. This move consequently displaced the 60,000 square feet of research space for which the site was initially intended. To solve this dilemma, leaders considered UNTHSC’s master plan, which included a future plan to move administrative offices just off campus and focus the main campus on academic and research activities. To find the needed research space, “we moved up the timing of the administrative space move and in June 2019 acquired a building three blocks away from campus where we could finish out 20,000 square feet of administrative space,” Anderson says. “Now we will convert the office space they had occupied in a research building to be used for research.”
The partnership ran into another hiccup as it planned for site visits from accrediting organizations in June 2018. By mid-2017, it became clear that UNTHSC would not be able to secure all the approvals it needed to be able to award the M.D. degree far enough in advance of the accreditation visit. So, in September 2017, the team amended its collaboration agreement to designate only TCU to award the M.D. degree. Eventually, the state legislature in 2017 approved legislation to allow UNTHSC to have an M.D. school, and the coordinating board gave approval in 2018 for an M.D. school at UNTHSC. Accordingly, with the appropriate accreditation approvals, it’s possible that all approvals will be in place for UNTHSC before the first class of M.D. graduates, in which case the degree will be awarded by both UNTHSC and TCU, Anderson says.
Classes began at the new joint medical school in July 2019, but agreements will continue to be fine-tuned. “Because the HSC [Health Science Center] does not have the degree-awarding designation, when that is achieved the agreements will need some tweaking to show more support from the HSC,” Anderson says.
By working in conjunction with another school, UNTHSC was able to launch the M.D. school that leaders had envisioned for more than a decade but had not managed to accomplish on their own. In addition, both institutions have broadened the scope to fill a growing need in the region—and do so at a reduced cost.
For example, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates six-year startup costs for medical schools to be $160 million. Because of the ability to pool existing resources from two institutions, such as existing space and faculty, the new M.D. school has a projected six-year startup cost of $140 million, a forecasted savings of $20 million, Anderson says. The board estimates building costs for a new medical school to be $100 million, but because UNTHSC already had the educational and research resources and facilities, the building cost of the M.D. school is projected at just $42 million, for another $58 million in savings.
In the meantime, the relationships built locally through establishing the new medical school have resulted in additional opportunities for existing students. President Williams and Dean Flynn signed affiliation agreements between the new M.D. school and the five health-care systems or hospitals in the county. These agreements provide for programmatic educational collaboration for all types of medical professionals, including all six schools at UNTHSC. “These agreements led to an additional 500 graduate medical education slots for our students,” Anderson says.
Building an effective partnership with a neighboring institution requires “thinking outside the box like President Williams did, and being visionary and working through the challenges,” Anderson says. “It is also important to have a great partner that you know has the same values and the same aligned interests, so you can work through the difficulties and hardships that may present themselves.”
Partnering for Seamless Transfers
The University of North Texas (UNT), based in Denton, and Collin County Community College District, a community college with multiple locations just north of Dallas, have long partnered to help students complete four-year degrees. The two institutions’ preadmission partnership allows students who meet UNT admissions requirements to complete the first two years of courses at Collin while locking in cost savings and guaranteeing admission to UNT upon completion of an associate degree.
Residents in and around Frisco, another community in North Texas, have had access to Collin College’s degree programs at the locally sited Collin Higher Education Center, a Collin College center that offers courses from five nearby four-year universities. And now, UNT is opening a new campus in Frisco, with incentives from the city government, to make it easier for residents to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UNT. The new campus, located just six miles from Collin College’s Frisco campus, represents an opportunity for the two institutions to deepen their partnership in an effort to serve regional business needs while creating a smooth path for transfer from two-year to four-year degree programs.
In addition to the two institutions’ close proximity, they also share common goals—so partnering just made sense. UNT and Collin College have been proactive in creating seamless pathways for college and local high school students, says Donald Weasenforth, vice president and provost of the Collin County Community College District’s Frisco campus. These pathways span dual credit courses offered by Collin and baccalaureate programs at UNT.
Both UNT and Collin College are committed to meeting the needs of local businesses and industries, as well as promoting student access and success by providing seamless pathways for students from high school through colleges and universities. As UNT expands in the Frisco area, both schools have committed to sharing resources to accomplish those goals.
For instance, Collin representatives have participated in the UNT master building committee, Weasenforth says. Collin has also used its existing local connections to help establish internships for UNT students. Rather than competing with each other for students, UNT and Collin are collaborating to serve the same students at different times along their paths, each with different services. The institutions are also offering joint advising for students who plan to move through both in a four-year plan.
“With a few exceptions, UNT’s programming at its Frisco campus is focusing, and will focus, on upper division undergraduate courses and graduate courses,” Weasenforth says. “Taking a very unusual approach, UNT has created with Collin a series of pathways that require Collin students to complete an associate degree and has guaranteed the application, not just transfer, of that coursework to a specified baccalaureate program at UNT. These types of pathways encourage students to complete their program at Collin while ensuring application of completed Collin courses to a UNT program.”
The Partnership Process
In 2017, Collin College and UNT were selected as one of four institutional pairs to participate in the Seamless Transfer Pathways Design Challenge funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The challenge was a 15-month design process exploring ways for students seeking a bachelor’s degree to transition smoothly from a community college to a four-year institution.
Through that process, representatives from both institutions were able to work together to reimagine the transfer experience and lower the barriers to transfer. “Work on this project yielded a template that was used to create new pathways from Collin to North Texas [UNT],” Weasenforth says. “We are now working with our [K–12] school district partners to extend these pathways and create others from high school, through Collin College, to North Texas [UNT].”
While the work to design and implement pathways has now been underway for a few years, collaborators faced some resistance to building less traditional pathways, “which were seen by some as less rigorous,” Weasenforth says.
Together, institution leaders developed an acceptable response to these concerns by creating the UNT New College at Frisco. This campus, which opened in 2016, offers a unique, cocurricular plan that integrates learning across the core curriculum and specialty programs as well as hands-on job experience, leading to a bachelor of applied arts and sciences degree.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has created common core curricula for fields of study, intended to ease transfer concerns, but they have sometimes posed a challenge, Weasenforth says. “These challenges are a matter of aligning program course requirements in high school, college, and university, as the fields of study do not always align well with college programs or with university programs,” he says. “The timeline for assessment established during the Seamless Transfer Pathways work includes continuous assessment with biannual meetings to complete thorough assessments.”
UNT will begin construction of its new, 100-acre Frisco campus by 2022, but the university already teaches more than 1,500 students in the area each semester at the UNT New College and at the Collin Higher Education Center. As UNT and Collin deepen their relationship, both expect enrollment to grow, as well as the ability to provide better programs at lower costs to students.
Collin has seen an uptick in completions, but it’s too early to determine whether this is a result of the seamless pathways, Weasenforth says. UNT has seen “very healthy” enrollments at the Frisco campus, and many of these are current Collin students or graduates.
In addition, “Collin and North Texas [UNT] have cultivated a greater sense of trust, which promotes discussions of other types of collaboration,” Weasenforth says. “Projected outcomes include increased enrollments in Frisco for both higher education institutions. Of course, we hope to see increased completions and graduations, as well as a high percentage of open job positions being filled by Collin and North Texas [UNT] students.”
Seamless pathways are also allowing the two institutions to offer degrees with overall reduced tuition costs. “Students can now complete lower-division courses at Collin College, which has the lowest tuition in Texas, and go on to complete the upper-division courses at North Texas, which has a general preadmission program, transfer scholarships, and a laudable transfer support program,” Weasenforth says.
Successful partnerships, like the one between Collin and UNT, depend on open communication and an ongoing recognition of, and respect for, each other’s strengths, Weasenforth says. “Keep an eye on common goals, such as student success, helping families, filling open job positions, building the economy, and securing the nation to help prevent being distracted by the comfortable, siloed, ‘business as usual’ approach,” he says. As more corporate- or government-based grant funding brings educational institutions together to break down long-term barriers, institutions have opportunities to initiate serious conversations about how they can improve student success.
NANCY MANN JACKSON, Huntsville, Ala., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.