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What Colleges Can Learn from UofM Partnerships with FedEx and Others

Episode 40

January 5, 2021 37 minutes


Dr. Richard Irwin from the University of Memphis talks to EAB’s Max Milder about the school’s unique collaboration with FedEx that offers employees, even those without a high school diploma, a guided pathway to earn a college degree.

They also touch on the benefits to all parties from innovative partnerships with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and others. Finally, Dr. Irwin shares his top tips for launching corporate partnerships and avoiding pitfalls that can weaken support for such projects among leadership teams on both sides.


00:11 Matt Pellish: Happy New Year. From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours. As we dive into 2021, hopefully refreshed at least a little bit from the holiday break and optimistic as the vaccine rollout continues, many colleges and universities are turning their sights to the future. How can they thrive in the new decade ahead? One such opportunity is through partnerships, and namely, corporate partnerships. Exploring this topic, we’re joined today by EAB’s Max Milder, our expert in professional and adult education, along with Dr. Richard Irwin from the University of Memphis, to talk about the school’s unique collaboration with FedEx, offering employees, even those without a high school diploma, a guided pathway to a college degree. They’ll discuss some other partnerships with Nike and Lebonheur Healthcare that have led to benefits for all parties involved. And finally, Dr. Irwin will share his tips for launching corporate partnerships along with the pitfalls to avoid that can weaken some support for such engagements on both the university and the corporate sides. Thanks for listening, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:15 Max Milder: Welcome, everyone, to Office Hours with EAB. I’m Max Milder. I’m a director with our research team, and my primary focus area is supporting our university partners in the world of online and continuing education, and a big area of focus recently has been around corporate and employer partnerships. So I’m so pleased today to welcome Dr. Richard Irwin from the University of Memphis to join us to talk a little bit about his own experience building out these types of employer partnerships as well. Thanks so much for joining us today, Dr. Irwin.

01:48 Dr. Richard Erwin: Thank you, Max. I appreciate the opportunity to share our work.

01:53 MM: So maybe as a place for us to get started, would love to understand a little bit more about your role with the University of Memphis and Global.

02:01 DE: Yes, I have the privilege of serving as the executive dean for U of M Global, which is the online portfolio or the online division at the University of Memphis. We have over 100 degree program options available online. We’ve been at this for 25 years and branded it as U of M Global in 2017. I also oversee our academic innovation as well as College of Professional and Liberal Studies. So it’s a very interesting position, and it fits very well into this conversation, very helpful to have all of those resources at my fingertips.

02:37 MM: Wonderful. Well, I’d love to double-click on a partnership that University of Memphis has in place with FedEx, certainly something that has received a lot of attention in the press. I’m curious how that partnership with FedEx came together, if you could give us a little bit of background on the relationships you’ve established there and what that partnership looks like.

03:00 DE: Yes, we’ve had a long-standing relationship with FedEx for a variety of purposes, whether… they’ve supported a number of initiatives on campus, but ironically, they were looking for an opportunity to use education to improve employee retention at their Memphis hub and wanted to expand to other hubs around the country. And they, through other contacts, had actually started with conversations with another university. Well, fortunately, in the spring of 2018, it was suggested that they stop over and see what we might be able to do for them. Well, from that conversation on, they dropped those other discussions because we were able to put together a program that met their needs, met their expectations. They were very mindful about what they expected to see in this program, and again, it was the objective of employee retention that really drove it.

04:04 DE: They had strategized about it, so it was very helpful for them to be able to come to us with, we jokingly call, a list of demands that needed to be included in the program. And we were able to then work off of that to design what ultimately became our LiFE program, Learning Inspired by FedEx, powered by U of M Global, but it really was them taking the initiative to wanna pursue a program for their employees. And thank goodness, I applaud them for wanting to use their educational benefit program to do so. What they were looking for, three or four key things was that they wanted their employees to experience limited, if any, out-of-pocket expenses. They knew that the population was gonna need some kind of support for an earned admission. They didn’t want educational history to be a barrier to a pathway into this program.

05:21 DE: They knew because of that, and again, because of the educational history, that there may be some anxiety and that they wanted to ensure that there were wraparound services available for that population. So those three things encapsulated a variety of others that were critical. And so we set out to establish a program that could help accommodate that, in some cases, using existing resources or things that we do at the university and packaging it together. So we did end up inventing a program and crystallizing all of those things together, but fortunately, we had a direct bill program. We had wraparound services that we had already melded into U of M Global from onboarding, the coaching, academic coaching student advocacy through that. The biggest challenge we had really was the earned admission process. That one, we had to put some work into that one.

06:35 MM: So tell me a little bit more about that earned admissions process, Dr. Irwin, because it sounds like potentially employees at FedEx might be coming in with wildly different experiences previously in higher ed. Some maybe quite a bit, some maybe not at all, and certainly different levels of academic preparation as well.

06:54 DE: Yeah, this has really been, turned out to be the gem of the program, quite frankly, is what we ended up developing, we refer now to as the Prep Academy. And the Prep Academy was a mechanism that would ultimately result in guaranteed admission into the institution no matter their educational background. And constructing it was one of our most rigorous exercises. We proposed our provost bless the program when we proposed building together four existing courses that were already in our catalog. And we actually got the course developers, instructors, even I had some chairs and deans all together working on this, and we broke up the four courses and laid them out based on, really, a competency-based approach. And also course objectives, we found that some had some similarities, so we were able to reconfigure it so that it was a logical sequence of these courses that was relevant and meaningful to the student population.

08:17 DE: One was our academic strategies course, which 70% of our freshmen take first term, that helps somebody’s study skills, time management, all those critical things that would provide a foundation for academic success, a couple of professional development courses and career planning and preparation, and then another life skills course. And again, all four of those were lower division courses on our curriculum. And we were very fortunate that our facilitator for the Prep Academy has a PhD in English. And so we made writing across all of that curriculum critical so that once they completed, we’d have a good foundation of all the skills drawn from that to succeed as a fully admitted student to the institution.

09:11 DE: After two years of Prep Academy completers, I’m really proud to say that those who have transitioned from Prep, those 12 credit hours, which by the way, upon completion, not only do they get guaranteed admission to the institution, but those 12 hours are placed on their transcript. So they’re not just earning the admission, they’re earning those 12 credit hours in addition to it, which is further motivation, but for the folks who have transitioned in the course work, they collectively have maintained a 3.0 GPA in their courses in the time span that I spoke of in these past two years now. We could have had a completer in the spring of ’19 and a completer in fall of ’20. It has a rolling admission, that was another thing that… A rolling entry through the Prep Academy.

10:03 DE: So if someone is deemed eligible, inquired last week, we verify their eligibility with FedEx this week, they can get into Prep Academy within a week or 10 days and start rolling. So that was great, to be able to get people into something right away as opposed to welcoming them and tell them “Classes begin January 19th, and we’ll see you in about four or six weeks.” So that was another beauty to the Prep Academy that enabled us on that competency-based level and someone can speed through at their own pace, that we were able to structure that again, pre-enrollment, because as FedEx alerted us to, we really did have people expressing interest with a variety of educational histories. Many had a high school diploma and had just not thought about going onto college, couldn’t afford it, which is why they ended up in a position at the hub with FedEx. Many might not have met our admission standards or other institutional standards. A large proportion had actually started college somewhere else or with us, had life issues, they had dropped out.

11:24 DE: So the Prep was a great way for all of those people to get started and also get acquainted with online education. We knew that that would be a critical part of it as well, because Prep and the whole degree program is delivered fully online within U of M Global. We did have a number of students who were junior or senior standing, and so we have subsequently developed kind of a practice of self-paced course for them as well, just so that they can… Actually, some of the same attributes of Prep for them so they can… There’s a low, no-risk opportunity for them to get acquainted with online delivery, particularly if it’s been a while. And then they move right into upper division work, but the Prep Academy is where a majority of the employees have started. We have hundreds right now working on becoming a tiger, moving onto full admission with the institution. And it’s something that actually our admissions is looking at… They wanna try to use that for marginal admits and for some other admissions purposes. So we’re pretty proud that we developed it for the LiFE program, and now it’s something that could benefit the rest of the university.

12:39MM: So it’s really a framework for rethinking access to higher education, right, and how you’re pathing students into some of these programs regardless of the partnership structure, right?

12:51 DE: Correct. Yeah, yeah.

12:51 MM: That’s wonderful.

12:53 DE: Yeah, great addition.

12:54 MM: You mentioned that the number of folks involved in developing this partnership, thinking about the program and the developmental pathway you put in place, so from department chairs to deans to student support services across campus, certainly a theme of conversations or… And working with employers is the inclination or really the motivation to be customer-oriented and customer-centric and be able to respond to some of those needs as quickly as possible, at the same time that you’re potentially navigating many different organizations or divisions or silos internally within your university. I’m curious how you navigated that tension between the very strict roles that some folks have on campus and what employers are often looking for, which might lean in the direction of something more customized or more responsive than what a lot of universities are prepared to offer.

13:50 DE: Great question, and we’re really fortunate that we have an innovative culture on our campus. And that starts with our leadership who had actually alerted me to the fact of what…that FedEx was looking at this, a conversation with our president is where it started and the heads up that a meeting would be forthcoming. And so obviously, the support from an executive level like that enables people to wrap their mind around some of these creative things, but the innovativeness of Dr. David Rudd, our president, has infiltrated the rest of the campus, that has helped dramatically. And then it’s a matter of pulling together the parties. We couldn’t have made this go without wonderful assistance from enrollment services, the Registrar’s Office in particular, our business office setting up the direct payment working on the invoices. One of the key things is coding and being able to track students, and just the entire process of embedding them within our system. Those are some of the key stakeholders that we needed to have involved. Fortunately, and one tip for others is that with regard to degree programs and those options, we kept it pretty narrow, we really wanted…and again, because of the academic history, the educational history of the population, FedEx was very supportive of us placing them…the priority or preferred program option being our Organizational Leadership and the College of Professional and Liberal Studies.

15:50 DE: And there are some good reasons for that. And I get back to those in a second, but to the key pointed hand, that sort of kept things a little tighter in terms of how many other academic representatives across campus, we needed to keep that narrow and deal with all of the issues, of the administrative issues I talked about. Subsequently, we have expanded the programs, but we really needed to keep our focus on working with that academic pathway to begin with.

16:23 DE: The reasons that we felt that the Organizational Leadership program was a good match for this program and proposed it to FedEx, was that it’s one of our, if not the most, flexible program on campus. So we could, first of all, accommodate a lot of transfer credits and as…that’s become critically important, as we’ve expanded the LiFE program to now up to 14 hubs across the country. So now, we’re having people apply that have no history at the University of Memphis, and so those transfer credits, we needed to have a good spot for them to fit into a degree program in Organizational Leadership fit that just fine.

17:11 DE: Likewise, a key component of this program is something that already exists and has been at the university for over 30-some years, and that’s our Experiential Learning Credit program. Much of the training that some of the FedEx employees have received from FedEx, we had already pre-assessed. That was one of the relationships in place with FedEx. And so we were able to convert that to college credit and save them a lot of time and money. And so the elective base within the Organizational Leadership program will accommodate an ELC award. Not all degree programs across campus can.

17:56 DE: And thirdly, as by its name, Organizational Leadership, it allowed the students matriculating through the program to take a number of business courses without being a business major, which had at the time a prerequisite of calculus, which was gonna get in the way of their success, and felt that this was a great way for them to, again, have this flexible, non-traditional degree option and have a pathway to completion, and all of those variables. When we presented it to FedEx, they were overjoyed because the title spoke to the employees that they were really trying to develop to future leaders within the company. And for a company that has a very rich promote-from-within philosophy, that it aligned with that attribute of theirs as well.

18:51 DE: So it became a huge success. If we have a junior or a senior who has been pursuing a degree here or somewhere else in another degree program and they’ve demonstrated success in that program, obviously by getting to that level of standing, then we…there is an appeal option, we can approve them to pursue another degree program, but again, in the beginning, we wanted to keep it a little quite narrow in order to make sure that we were building that successful path to completion.

19:25 MM: Yeah. That certainly makes sense. I’m curious, given the flexibility you’ve built into not only the Organizational Leadership program, but the whole intake process, the pathways into the program, have you been surprised at all by the characteristics or the types of students that you’re seeing enroll? Maybe students who weren’t necessarily the kind of target audience for bringing this program together, but folks who see a lot of the benefits involved and are very active or enthusiastic about enrolling.

19:56 DE: We have. We’ve seen a higher volume of transfer credits or prior credits than we anticipated. We really were led to believe that most of these folks would have never had any college history. In fact, we had a couple of very early graduates who when you take all of the resources and put them together, had even some managers who received a healthy ELC Award. Our first poster child, if you will, is somebody who had gone to the University of Memphis, or then Memphis State, and had to quit school at high junior or almost senior standing in the mid-90s to get a job at FedEx, raise a family, and actually had children at the university. When he heard about LiFE and the various elements of that, jumped right back into it and exactly a year from the day we launched, he graduated with one of his children in our summer commencement ceremony. So that guy, Joe Kelly, became kind of our poster child for the program, because all of the elements came into play, there was the direct bill where we were…he wasn’t out of pocket for his expenses, we were able to use an existing accelerant, ELC, to help him get to a good standing. He only ended up with three or four courses that he needed to finish.

21:34 DE: So then we’ve had several other people realize that that could be them as well, so we’ve had a number of quick graduates that had gotten to that position. Fortunately, as you all I think are aware, we have our Finish Line Program, a nationally acclaimed Finish Line Program for those that fit those parameters, have gotten to senior standing, and life got in the way, but those credits are still good. So we can bring them back and help them accelerate completion. So it’s… Finish Line was another one that if we layer that on top of this, we’re really helping folks in this community and others complete that college degree and advance their careers.

22:21 MM: That’s a wonderful story about the parent graduating on the same day, if I’m understanding correctly.

22:26 DE: Yeah. Yeah.

22:26 MM: That’s wonderful. I’m curious, so what have been the benefits to FedEx? So you mentioned at the outset, they were very, very interested in improving retention among their workforce. Have they seen that play out over time since the partnership has been in place?

22:42 DE: Yes, and we have all made sure that we have kept that front of mind, is that…and I’ve instilled that in my staff that we have to be incredibly respectful in making sure that we are keeping in mind all of our corporate partner objectives. Why did they get into this relationship? And again, it was that attrition challenge that FedEx was having. Working at the Hub is a tough job. Imagine it right now, they are just completely overwhelmed. They’ve got a peak season on top of a peak season. This is typically a peak season, and now with a vaccine distribution, it’s added another layer of peak. And thank goodness for their existence. And so yes, not only did they have an interest in just doing this as a great benefit for their employees, but they are analyzing data on a regular basis. We meet on a regular basis to discuss basically how it’s going.

23:49 DE: And the easiest way to describe it is if we have an active participant in LiFE, the retention has flipped, and prior to LiFE, consistently throughout their hubs, the attrition rate was somewhere around 80%. They were…the cost of retraining employees was astronomical. So that’s really the impetus for the investment, was how can we pull down those training costs to get somebody into a degree program, and dependent on our benefits in the state here and stay focused on job and school going together.

24:32 DE: And so like I said, now, attrition in the LiFE program has been incredibly low, which means then they’re staying in their position to take advantage of those benefits. And so we’ve kinda used that, that is just completely flipped it, and you look at the numbers, it’s that 80-20 principle with respect to participation. So we’re delighted because we had no idea. You can’t really control that. And for it to have worked so well has been beneficial and a success for both parties. And so now, we keep working on ways that we’re gonna ensure that that continues to happen. And we’ve also had to be mindful, I mentioned a peak on a peak, that’s influenced some of our scheduling, that’s influenced our academic planning, and that’s also one of the reasons when I go back to the Prep Academy, we needed to have sort of that self-paced element to it because we had people who started in Prep in the fall and building momentum. Remember it’s 12 credit hours, that’s a full-time semester. And that’s about how many credits a part-time student who’s working, like these folks, is gonna accumulate over a year. And so this enabled them to take a short pause during their peak season and then pick that back up in January when things slow down again.

25:56 DE: We’ve tried to build in as many of those as possible. The whole degree program is not…we still have most of the credit hours tethered to a semester, but we purposely built in those that we can to meet this typical November to January challenge.

26:15 MM: It’s so great to hear that the program has actually provided some of those outcomes, right? It’s meaningfully moved the dial on employee retention. I know so many of our own university partners can sometimes struggle to articulate the potential benefits of one of these partnerships to an employer that they’re looking to work with in some way. And so wonderful to hear some of the outcomes on that front. Dr. Irwin, I’d be remiss in not giving you an opportunity to share what else is going on at the University of Memphis. I know in some ways, this FedEx partnership has served as a proof of concept for other types of employer engagements in your region. I’m curious how that’s impacted the perception of the university in your region, and what types of employers are coming forward to indicate an interest in working with you, and also how maybe some of those other partnerships differ in terms of their structure or goals from what you’ve put in place with this LiFE program and FedEx.

27:15 DE: We really have benefited from the success of the LiFE program. Ironically, prior to LiFE, pre-LiFE, we collaborated with deans in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences for a healthcare-related program. We had received a collaborative opportunity grant from APLU, and those were my choices because they were being so innovative, and I thought we can create a pathway for healthcare personnel to accelerate completion. And this was in about 2016, 2017. And we’d worked with a couple of partners here and had some nice things taking place. So again, that’s why LiFE wasn’t such a shock. It wasn’t a shock to our system because we had already thought that this was a great opportunity. We have a very robust healthcare industry in Memphis. We were getting a little bit of traction.

28:22 DE: Well, lo and behold, LiFE comes along and accelerates that, and so healthcare became a secondary option. Well, on the heels of LiFE taking off, we were approached by Methodist Lebonheur Healthcare because they too had a workforce challenge. The request was a little bit different in that they wanted to have the degree option as an educational benefits program, but they also had some employment gaps that they wanted to fill through training. And healthcare is right for this because they have such rigorous…and the certifications are so critical. So calling upon those same folks from nursing and health sciences, we rallied a team together and built a program for them branded as MAPP, Methodist Employees Advancing Professionally, which involved a credit and a non-credit option.

29:22 DE: The non-credit options that we structured were for surgical technologists and certified nursing assistants. Those were their two primary gaps. We have had to construct those programs from scratch and meet national and state accreditation standards respectively. That was a heavy lift, but again, we did it in partnership. We had months and months of meetings with Methodist. They are providing the field experience, the clinical hours. And these are their employees, and so they are funding it on their behalf. And there’ll be a service component once they’re finished, but it was yet another iteration of key things. We’ve listened to these folks. “What is it that you need? And let’s talk about a way that we can build this ramp to success,” again, through…

30:24 DE: And we’ve got a healthy number of Methodist employees on the degree route, but we have…our first CNA cohort just finished, and we’ll start another one in January. And then the surg-tech is a lot longer. It takes a whole year, but we have a cohort of 25 working through that. We have the accreditation visit coming next month. So we dove in head first and have gotten after that one. Subsequently, we’ve been approached by Nike and had an opportunity to work with them. And FedEx really helped bring them along. FedEx is actually who convinced them to come over and visit with us because they could experience the same benefits as us. So it’s nice when other partners are selling future business for you.

31:22 MM: That’s amazing. I admire your team’s ability to put together a pithy acronym for some of these programs. You have MAPP for Methodist Lebonheur. You have LiFE, Learning Inspired by FedEx for FedEx. What role does that type of branding play in how you communicate about these programs, whether that’s with internal stakeholders or externally with other perspective partners like Nike?

31:49 DE: We consider it to be a key component. First of all, I think it helps make us a part of their conversation in a program of choice. For instance, Nike branded their as Lane Four. Well, whether you’re on the track or in the pool, the premier lane is Lane Four. And so that helps folks across campus get acquainted. And then it differentiates us from all the other options. We don’t have any exclusivity with our partners. Their employees could still go somewhere else. It would typically be a tuition reimbursement program. Direct bill helps leverage us against that, but just that name and that identity really helps distinguish within their population. And then on campus, it resonates so well. Instead of somebody calling up and saying, “I wanna learn more about that program you have with FedEx,” if they say, LiFE, every office on campus now knows what they’re looking into. Everybody knows what MAPP is. We have something with the City of Memphis called COMPETE, City of Memphis Employees… I actually forgot what all the letters mean, but every one of them resonates in both entities, which is critical.

33:17 MM: Dr. Irwin, you’ve shared so much of your insight and experience and it’s been a great conversation. Maybe as a last question to round this out, for all the institutions out there that are interested in breaking into the space thinking about how they work in more coordinated ways with local and regional employers, what are the one or two key pieces of advice that you would give them about how to get started and how to approach this type of work?

33:45 DE: So do a triage across campus of what are the existing resources that could really make something like this work. We try to limit what we needed to create versus what we could use. And again, we’re fortunate to have had the culture on campus of ELC, Finish Line, some of these other options that we can just embed into the program and make it work. We had a broad implementation team but a narrow focus. We engaged parties across campus, like I said, from enrollment services to business and finance. And so we got a lot of input but we kept it narrow by design to somewhat limit the mistakes, if you would. I think that was helpful.

34:38 DE: Try to ensure that both there’s a champion not only on campus but with the partner, and somebody’s got to carry that flag and be as enthusiastic and passionate. Once again, making this a program of choice is critical, and building a foundation that’s replicable and scalable, something that doesn’t have to be reinvented, that it might be a slight iteration, slightly different, such as how MAPP was slightly different than LiFE but there were still elements that could be repeated, and we didn’t need to go back to the drawing board.

35:21 DE: I think more people would probably uncover more existing opportunities on campus that are just underutilized, ELC credit by exam, all of these types of forms of prior learning assessment, degree programs that have flexibility built into them, all of those types of things are what really makes something like this go, that were sitting dormant at times at the University of Memphis. And now we’re all delighted that we got ’em…dusted ’em off a little bit and put ’em to good use.

35:58 MM: Well, Dr. Irwin, thank you so much for taking the time to join us and share your thoughts and experiences, and congratulations on some of your successes so far. We’ll be excited to see what’s coming from University of Memphis in the future as well.

36:11 DE: Well, thank you, I appreciate EAB’s interest in our work. We couldn’t do a lot of this without your help, and greatly appreciate that.

36:25 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us again next week for a conversation with EAB’s Community College guru, Christina Hubbard, and Rufus Glasper, President and CEO on the League for Innovation in the Community College. Until then from all of us at office hours with EAB, Happy New Year.