Effective Collaboration and Coordination: Lessons from Research and Practice

It takes a village. Partnership. Collaboration. Networking. We all hear and use these terms regularly when talking about ways to improve education. With so many diverse organizations, agencies, and entities acting at the national, state, and local levels to better serve students and improve outcomes, it’s perhaps not surprising. But what does the research tell us about building a better partnership, or how best to structure the public “village?” This question is central to many different efforts within the realm of education policy and practice, but is particularly relevant to work aimed at increasing college access and success for low-income students.

Building a successful, effective, and efficient network does not happen accidentally. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), through its College Access Regional Network, recently released Effective Collaboration and Coordination: Lessons from Research and Practice, a brief that reviews research on the characteristics that help networks to be effective at delivering public services.  WICHE’s College Access Regional Network is a collaborative effort that brings together state projects in Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota and Utah focused on increasing postsecondary access and success for low-income students.

The brief builds on research from the Stanford Social Innovation Review on “Collective Impact” – the notion that effecting social change is much more effective when efforts are able to build cross-sector collaboration. It also includes a summary of broader empirical reviews of the characteristics of effective networks that deliver public services. This research not only examines the characteristics of collaborative efforts that lead to better outcomes for the target population but also the characteristics that lead to sustainable collaborations.

The key characteristics of successful collaborations include:

  • Having a central coordinating agency and steering committee (also known as a “backbone” organization)
  • Developing a common agenda
  • Using common outcome measures and metrics
  • Having network partners interact with the target population
  • Engaging in joint planning activities

In addition to reviewing the existing research, the brief highlights three examples of collaborative efforts that demonstrate some of the identified characteristics. These examples include:

  • The 55,000 Degrees project in Louisville, Kentucky. This effort, initiated by the mayor of Louisville in 2008, brings together the private sector, civic leaders, higher education institutions, K-12 superintendants, and others united around a goal of raising the number of Louisville residents with postsecondary degrees by 55,000.
  • The Georgia Adult Learning Consortium. The University of Georgia System launched the Adult Learning Consortium in 2008, with funds from the federal College Access Challenge Grant. Through this effort, 13 higher education institutions have joined in a collaborative effort in which they agree to adopt several adult-friendly policies and practices and participate in a joint marketing effort designed to encourage adults to attend college.
  • The Health Careers Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati. This effort has brought together employers and postsecondary institutions to develop a pipeline of trained healthcare workers to meet workforce demands in the Cincinnati area. The collaborative provides coaching and advising in addition to tuition assistance for students. The effort has documented positive results, including high credential completion rates and positive returns on investment for employers.

The brief also argues that building an effective collaborative network is an important strategy for sustainability. In addition to potentially improving outcomes (which is always a good plan in attempts to attract additional funding), these collaborative efforts are able to share resources and act in complementary fashion, rather than wasting resources through redundant action.

The list of potential partners and collaborators for those working to improve college access and success is lengthy and developing a successful network requires careful and thoughtful planning. The research and examples presented here can be a first step toward creating a “village” that truly works for the students.

Patrick Lane is a senior policy analyst and project coordinator at Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).

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