Alliances & Intermediaries
Alliances, networks, and intermediaries constitute a vital component of the learn-and-work ecosystem. There has been substantial growth in this component, especially as higher education institutions and employers struggle to improve student learning and workforce readiness, contain costs, address workforce shortages, meet quality assurance requirements, and adjust to technological advances. These entities exist to share information and resources, coordinate research and policy agendas, and foster mutual support among a range of actors in the ecosystem.
Intermediary organizations are often viewed as a distinct class of third-party entities. They tend to support the provision of services by another organization rather than providing direct services. They tend to be technical assistance providers or capacity-building organizations. They include nonprofit and for-profit entities, governmental and quasi-governmental entities, and membership organizations. Some are global in focus; others focus within nations, states, or cities. Some focus on the research and policy arena while others are subject- or discipline-specific. An intermediary organization can function in one or many capacities: It can be both a think tank and advocacy organization or both a technology company and consultancy. Intermediaries can also be networks or coalitions of organizations working toward a similar goal.
The growth of intermediaries is global. Many nation-funded higher education systems feature intermediary bodies (also known as buffer bodies), which stand between government and the higher education institutions. Examples from Britain are the funding councils, the Quality Assurance Agency, and the research councils. In Central and Eastern Europe, intermediary bodies were created in national higher education systems after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Developments in various countries suggest that, with large-scale higher education now squarely in the political arena, the role of intermediary bodies necessarily becomes one of implementing government policy.
Typical services offered by intermediaries include:
- Project management.
- Technical assistance.
- Research and policy (data and information services: research, data, analysis, trend studies).
- Bridging and partnership (informal and formal networking, conferences, meetings).
- Professional development.
- Organizational development.
- Leadership and administration in higher education.
- Campus recruitment and enrollment.
- Joint purchasing.
- Quality assurance.
- Equity, cultural awareness, and change efforts.
- Technology, data systems, infrastructure.
- Financial modeling and business planning.
- Strategic planning.
- Communications, media, news alliances.
Many types of intermediary organizations contribute to the learn-and-work ecosystem: 1) national policy organizations, 2) regional compacts, 3) statewide higher education agencies, 4) think tanks and research centers, 5) workforce intermediaries, 6) networks, 7) advocacy organizations, 8) unions, 9) philanthropic foundations, 10) direct service providers, and 11) for-profit businesses.
- Regional Compacts: All but three states (New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania) belong to one of four regional (interstate) compacts: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), Midwest Higher Education Compact (MHEC), New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE), and Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). Consistent with their original missions to share resources and advance education in their regions, these compacts facilitate articulation and tuition reciprocity agreements and lend expert analysis on higher education issues that individual states may not have the capacity to produce.Structurally, regional compacts serve both elected officials and higher education administrators. State participation in compacts and some national policy organizations is approved by elected officials. Compacts’ boards of directors include governors and legislators from member-states. Compacts also work directly with state higher education officials to coordinate member-states’ efforts to reach policy goals and collect and distribute data. Functionally, compacts prepare policy briefs for elected officials and more detailed policy reports for higher education officials. Similarly, professional staffs of regional compacts and national consortia consult with policymakers individually, provide formal testimony, host meetings of state higher education leaders, and collaborate with higher education officials on policy initiatives. In many ways, regional compacts function as a combination of think tanks and state agencies. They produce reports and share expertise much like think tanks, but since states pay membership fees, policymakers may view this information as less biased than that provided by partisan-aligned think tanks. However, lacking the formal reporting structure of state agencies and given their location outside state capitals, regional compacts maintain an outsider status that can mitigate or accentuate their influence on the policy process.
- National policy organizations: A large number of national higher education policy organizations provide research-based information. Many consult with state-level elected officials and higher education leaders and also hold conferences and professional development sessions for state policymakers. In this role, they may serve as opinion leaders or change agents. As example, the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) serves both as the professional association for states’ chief higher education officers and as a policy organization that conducts research. It also consults on issues ranging from finance to accountability to P-16 transitions. Likewise, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) consults with state leaders on higher education governance structures and finance policy and provides useful information at its website, www.higheredinfo.org.
- State higher education agencies: Statewide governance intermediaries provide information to and intercede between government and higher education institutions. Known variously as consolidated governing boards, coordinating boards, and planning agencies, these organizations largely emerged in the mid-20th century primarily to buffer state government from postsecondary institutions. Prior to their creation, campus leaders represented their interests directly to state legislatures and governors. The resulting policy and appropriations decisions often reflected the strength of these individual relationships rather than the wider interests of the state. These governance structures now have varying levels of influence on statewide master planning, budget allocations and recommendations, academic program approval, and the use of research in the policy process.
- Think tanks: Think tanks have become increasingly prevalent in the learn-and-work ecosystem. Their agendas and missions vary, ranging from research producers, research translators, issue advocacy, and ideological advancement. A think tank, center, or policy institute is a research institute that performs research and advocacy on topics such as social policy, political strategy, economics, military, technology, and culture. Most think tanks are non-governmental organizations, but some are semi-autonomous agencies within government or are associated with particular political parties, businesses, or the military. Think tanks publish articles and studies, and even draft legislation on particular matters of policy or society. This information is used by governments, businesses, media organizations, social movements, or other interest groups. Think tanks range from those associated with academic or scholarly activities to those that are overtly ideological and advocate for particular policies, with a wide range among them in terms of the quality of their research. More than half of the think tanks that exist today were established after 1980.
- Workforce Intermediaries (WIs): Workforce intermediaries provide education and training advisement, support, and delivery services to workers and employers. WIs number in the unknown thousands, and they “embody an enormous landscape of companies, organizations, institutions, and partnerships who offer numerous and varied services to learners, employers, and the overall workforce development academic community. Basically, workforce intermediaries (WIs) form the multi-faceted connections between job seekers and workers and employers.” WIs include everything from local chambers of commerce and labor federations to worker centers; policy and practice are their forte. [See at the Library, Research: Employers and Workforce Development.]
- Networks: An emerging trend in the learn-and-work ecosystem is to work through networks of intermediaries, higher education institutions, employers, and others to promote reforms and to track policies and new practices. To succeed, stakeholders must use their networks deliberately and advantageously, understanding field-level norms and professional expectations.
- Advocacy organizations: Advocacy organizations act as intermediaries between their constituents and decision-makers. Their missions focus on specific interests, and they lobby or advocate for policy changes at various levels of government on behalf of the constituents they represent.
- Unions: Unions lobby on behalf of their members, and they represent the interests of their workers in negotiations with employers about pay, benefits, working conditions, and other work-related issues. [See at Library Union in Apprenticeship Developments]
- Philanthropic foundations::Philanthropic foundations act as intermediaries between philanthropists and service providers by funding initiatives that are of interest to the donor. They also act as intermediary organizations by conducting and sharing research and best practices related to particular issues with their grantees, practitioners, policymakers, and other interested parties.
- Direct service providers: Direct service providers—such as professional development and career services organizations—act as intermediaries by initiating a contract with institutions or employers to offer services to employees or other constituent groups.
- For-profit businesses: Businesses can also act as intermediaries. (Burch, 2006). For example, technology companies provide the platforms that higher education institutions use to keep track of student data. Publishers provide schools with curricular materials, such as textbooks and trade books. And consultancies provide expertise to help start or maintain initiatives and evaluate the results.
Brokers, brokering organizations
Technical assistance organizations
Buffering organizations (international use)
Relationship to Ecosystem
Alliances, networks, partnerships, and intermediaries are integral to the learn-and-work ecosystem. They provide the connecting services that are vital to the efficient and effective functioning of the nation’s complex, decentralized learn-and-work ecosystem. They provide a range of needed services, especially those that facilitate and foster sharing information and resources, coordinate research and policy agendas, and enable organizations’ mutual support.
- Chambers of Commerce act as intermediaries by hosting job listings on their website to help connect employers to workers, helping to match workers with the best opportunities based on their credentials and skills, and/or providing services to individuals who want to start their own business and employ workers. A chamber will often lobby the government at the local, state, or national levels to ensure their legislative agenda gets represented. Chambers operate as individual organizations and do not receive any government funding. There are 4,000 chambers and volunteer organizations in the U.S. advocating for a variety of issues, including tax policies, legal reform, and economic reform. Minority chambers provide additional resources to Hispanic, Asian, and Black business owners. While the guiding principles for each chamber of commerce vary, many of their goals center around economic development, prosperity, and employer community.
- Goodwill Centers act as an intermediary by offering a means for individuals to learn new skills and earn a credential, creating a bridge between learners and workers and the employers who need their skills. They offer a variety of services to create this bridge, including access to computers for online classes, resumé creation and review, job search and placement support, interview practice, financial planning, family stability assistance, and career counseling.
- Credential Engine acts as an intermediary by housing information that connects learners to credentialing institutions and employers to students and job seekers. It provides a suite of web-based services to create a clear, consistent, and centralized registry of credentials. Students, job seekers, and employers can use that registry to search, retrieve, and compare the myriad of credentials offered.
- The T3 Innovation Network, managed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, explores new technologies and standards in the education and labor markets to create more equitable and effective learning and career pathways.
- Jobs for the Future (JFF) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help individuals prepare for college and career. JFF published a guide that supports intermediaries and their community college partners in forming productive and lasting relationships. The goal of these partnerships is to give high school students opportunities to earn college credits that will help them build careers. Intermediaries that design and build work-based learning delivery systems believe that postsecondary credentials—certifications and degrees (associate and bachelor’s)—are required for most good jobs. Indeed, such credentials increase access to economic mobility and, ultimately, greater equity. When coupled with work-based learning experiences, postsecondary credentials become even more powerful. But many intermediaries have little experience working with higher education partners to make sure that students earn the credentials they need. This guide draws on JFF’s long experience in helping intermediaries and their community college partners form productive and lasting relationships that benefit young people.
- Intermediaries for Scale (IFS) is an initiative launched in 2022 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It brings together 13 intermediary organizations that support and represent networks of colleges and universities across the country. These intermediaries are guiding hundreds of colleges through a transformation process to create more student-centered campuses and reduce equity gaps in graduation rates. The participating intermediaries range from smaller, place-based organizations to those working specifically with Black, American Indian, or Latinx students, to national associations representing some of the largest and most recognized campuses and state systems.
- UNCF (United Negro College Fund) with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is accelerating institutional transformation efforts to power higher education as an engine for racial and socioeconomic equity. Five other intermediaries are participating in this effort; they were selected based on their expertise and potential to disrupt generational poverty. UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building (ICB) will draw on its 41 institutional partners, a network of HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions. Nearly three-fourths of college presidents noted in a survey that to thrive in an increasingly complex, tech-driven world, they must rethink their business models and campus cultures for greater inclusivity and mobility—and they seek intermediary partners to guide that change.
- Frontier Set, a national network of 29 colleges and universities and two state systems, was created with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to enable ideas to be shared across several political and institutional contexts., Six intermediaries played a major role in identifying the groups of like institutions that would make up the broader initiative. Those six are: the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the University Innovation Alliance, the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, The Aspen Institute, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers association. Frontier Set focuses on developing, executing, and sharing institutional redesign strategies. The network includes a variety of stakeholders, including colleges and universities, advocacy organizations, membership associations, and think tanks. All are committed to eliminating race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success by transforming how they operate. The Frontier Set represents an emerging trend: philanthropic organizations working through networks of intermediaries to fast-track policies and new practices.
- Members of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and school district education leaders, are leveraging intermediaries to expand career and technical education (CTE) opportunities for students. Chiefs for Change has listed the characteristics of a high-functioning intermediary and identified effective ways for state and local intermediaries to respond to community needs, provide critical support, and build sustainable education-to-workforce pathways. The network also collects and provides examples of how education systems in various states are working with intermediaries in their jurisdictions.
- The AFL-CIO Working for America Institute (Institute) partners with organized labor, employers, and the workforce system to expand high quality training and apprenticeship programs, ensure that workers have the skills necessary to meet industry demands, and provide opportunities for workers to build careers and earn family-sustaining wages. The Institute leverages a large network for its work: 55 international unions, more than 650 state and local labor federations, and more than 1,600 labor and community members of Workforce Development Boards.
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