Increasing Corporate Philanthropy to Enrich Technology Innovation in Higher Education

min read

Key Takeaways

  • With recession-induced drops in charitable giving to higher education, funding for innovative technology that supports institutional goals has become an urgent topic on many campuses.
  • Some foundations, the federal and state governments, and technology corporations offer competitive grants and gifts of technology to K–12 and postsecondary schools, recognizing the importance of digital literacy among graduates entering the workforce.
  • All areas of the business community benefit from technological expertise developed at the undergraduate level, and existing models of successful corporate philanthropic giving to support technology in education should extend to other industries.
  • Federal, state, and local governments could support competitive academic technology grants by giving tax breaks to those corporations offering them.

Always a fraught topic in higher education, funding solutions for technology that supports teaching and learning prompt intense debate whenever the subject comes up. Given the necessity of integrating technologies more fully into the curriculum to prepare our graduates for the future, we need imaginative funding solutions to bridge the persistent gap. A good start would be to solidify the relationship between external funding alternatives like competitive grants, particularly from corporate sources, and support for campus innovations. We must initiate a dialogue on campus that focuses on creative solutions to the critical issue of funding and sustaining technology-based projects, learning goals, and digitally based research agendas. Here I outline some ways to build a mutually productive link between academia and the business world.

The State of Technology in Higher Education

Publications like the annual Horizon Report from the New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative provide a thoughtful look into the future of higher education technology. Recent Horizon Reports point to new instructional technologies, such as mobile computing, geospatial awareness, and personal web environments, as tools to watch in coming years.1 These technologies are far from free. Additionally, the reports recommend that advancing technologies be taught by professionals who know what they are doing — and identified this as the primary challenge.

Instructional technologists or faculty members who understand these emergent applications and their pedagogical usefulness should be engaged in the task of educating the rest of the campus on their utility and pedagogical purpose in the curriculum.2 Although most educators agree on the importance of digital literacy for students, few faculty have the training to include media fluency in their teaching.3 In fact, students believe that most instructors do not use technologies effectively in courses.4 A  major challenge is keeping up with the costs of supporting emerging tools.

Reimagining the classroom and valuing innovations that help redesign the curriculum so that advancing technologies in teaching and learning are less about the tools and more about thinking requires creative solutions for financing professional development, faculty support models, and sustained access to tools. All of these cost dearly. Corporations, like foundations already do, can step in to become strong allies in achieving the goal of educating our future leaders. As the 2009 Horizon Report on economic development noted:

Students are not being educated in a culture of innovation and creativity. Today's workers are expected to be problem solvers, to tackle challenges proactively, and to think creatively, but these skills are not taught in schools. The culture in most schools still reflects values that were key in the industrial age — values that prepared students for jobs on the assembly line. Innovation and creativity are skills that can, and should, be cultivated while students are still in school.5

We must move swiftly away from teaching for the Industrial Age, beyond the Information Age, and educate students for the Conceptual Age,6 where technology is integrated in such a way as to make media fluency a seamless yet significant melody in the symphony that is higher learning.

At present, colleges and universities do not adequately prepare students to graduate with digital fluency and the competencies they will need for future careers. A 2008 white paper by the New Media Consortium in collaboration with The Economist presented results from surveys with nearly 300 participants from both senior-level positions in higher education and corporate leaders, finding that an increase in corporate-academic partnerships is necessary to better prepare graduates for jobs.7 Citing a lack of readiness for the workforce, business sector responses indicate that they believe stronger alliances with institutions of higher education will help build more well-rounded and well-prepared employees. Academic and corporate respondents strongly agreed that "advanced campus technologies will be a core differentiator" among competitive schools and that new technologies, used wisely, have the power to improve a campus's reputation — but technology costs for implementation and maintenance are a major concern for academics. In a telling finding, 93 percent of the corporate respondents thought that when considering corporate partnerships, a university's technology strategy was critical. Innovative ideas written up in grant proposals without the applied science and campus infrastructure to support the proposed work will prove difficult to actualize.

Interestingly, for it goes against many of our assumptions, students feel ill-prepared for the technologies that lie ahead of them in the workplace. In a 2010 ECAR survey fewer than half of the 30,000 undergraduate respondents agreed to the statement, "By the time I graduate, the IT I have used in my courses will have adequately prepared me for the workplace."8 A similar ECAR student survey conducted in 2007 concluded that faculty needed more training and applied technological skills development as well as increased awareness of their students' actual skill level.9 Students are not learning how to think with technology, adapt digital solutions to scholarly questions, or attain media fluency by using a learning management system or Facebook.

Alliances for Technology Funding

The problem of underfunding campus technology has not gone unaddressed. Corporations like Hewlett-Packard, Google, and IBM, recognizing the need for ramped-up digital fluency for our students, have contributed money, software, and hardware to education. More resources are needed if we are to keep up with the exponentially increasing flow of digital data. Students accustomed to manipulating data on personal computers are not learning how to do the larger thinking needed to tackle terabyte-sized data set problems, like DNA sequencing, data mining, and analysis of extensive humanistic and scientific digital databases.

Higher education has traditionally sought funding from not-for-profit foundations, national organizations, and state agencies. However, the fiscal downturn has affected these traditional sources of off-campus funding negatively. Private giving to colleges and universities has decreased with the stagnant economy,10 and charitable giving to the nonprofit sector has also dropped off.11

As colleges and universities grapple with how to continue to fund technology currently available while looking toward the future, higher education administrators would be wise to garner corporate support and establish good working partnerships with business and industry. The symbiotic relationship between higher education and corporations is a clear reason for cultivating and building this alliance. An open and transparent application process, competitive in nature and structure, should assuage fears of conflicts of interest. But as Dan Cohen noted in a Digital Campus podcast, commenting with some irony on Google's large-scale book scanning project:

"Academics are really good at looking a gift horse in the mouth. It's one of the things we specialize in."12

Government could play a supporting role by encouraging academic grant opportunities from the business arena. The most obvious way to do this is by offering tax advantages to those companies that solicit submissions for competitive technology grants from colleges and universities. The current administration shows some heartening signs in that direction.13

Finally, corporate philanthropy must come from all areas of the for-profit business community, not solely from the technology sector. Agribusiness, health care, retail, banking, telecommunications, construction, and insurance all benefit from the technological expertise developed before students graduate. The application of applied sciences at the undergraduate education level contributes to this goal. Cost-sharing must be across the spectrum of industries to balance the contributions with their benefits.

Creating Partnerships

How might we begin to establish these relationships between corporate interests and academia when scant few exist and those businesses that do work with academia are primarily within the technology-based arena? How do we move from corporate interests to corporate philanthropists? Here are some suggested steps forward:

  1. Start talking. We can begin with conversations on campus. Discussions regarding innovative funding alternatives on campus should center on grants officers, educational technology leaders, the business department, and the academic dean collaborating to approach a solution to technology funding with an eye towards off-campus benefactors.
  2. Build coalitions. There is strength in numbers. We should build a coalition of colleges and universities that collectively work to achieve the goal of increased funding options — such as competitive grants for higher education technology support — through nontraditional sources.
  3. Work with academic associations. These campus coalitions should work with and urge academic associations (like EDUCAUSE, NITLE, AAC&U, and others) to lobby the U.S. Department of Education to support appropriate higher education initiatives that would encourage technology-related competitive grants.
  4. Work with corporations directly. We should talk and work with existing competitive grant providers, like HP or Google, to reach an even wider audience.
  5. Conduct a needs assessment. Talk to business leaders. Revisit The Economist survey. What are the perceived skill deficits in graduating seniors?
  6. Sit down at the table. The existing partnerships between corporations and academia provide a solid working model from which to launch further grant opportunities through other non-technology-based industries. Philanthropic corporate leaders should be encouraged to sit down with business leaders from finance, real estate, and telecommunications and higher educators to devise funding alternatives modeled on existing grants that are working successfully.


Private giving to colleges and universities has dramatically decreased recently, and corporations can fill the void, specifically in relation to technology funding, using the steps presented here. With a vision of pulling through this tough financial time together, institutions of higher learning will need more fiscal assistance from nontraditional sources. Government could play a significant role by offering tax advantages to those businesses providing higher education philanthropic grants.

The economy will stabilize. When that occurs, the relationships established now will remain strong for the continued enrichment and prosperity of our schools and students, and for their successful integration into the working world following graduation.


Many thanks are due to Jim Vanides, education program manager at Hewlett-Packard, and James Olson, grants officer at Vassar College. Working with both of them helped to solidify my ideas for this article. I greatly appreciate the helpful comments from Bryan Alexander on a much earlier draft.

  1. Larry Johnson, Alan Levine, Rachel Smith, and S. Stone, "The 2010 Horizon Report," The New Media Consortium; and Larry Johnson, Alan Levine, and Rachel Smith, "The 2009 Horizon Report," The New Media Consortium.
  2. Johnson, Levine, and Smith, "The 2009 Horizon Report," p. 6.
  3. Johnson, Levine, Smith, and Stone, "The 2010 Horizon Report," p. 5.
  4. Shannon D. Smith, Gail Salaway, and Judith Borreson Caruso, The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2009 (ECAR Research Study, vol. 6, 2009), (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2009). See the section "Instructors Use of IT" starting on page 70, and in particular Figure 5-8.
  5. Larry Johnson, Alan Levine, Cynthia Scott, Rachel Smith, and S. Stone, "The Horizon Report: 2009 Economic Development Edition," New Media Consortium.
  6. Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (New York: Penguin Group, 2006).
  7. Marie Glenn, "The Future of Higher Education: How Technology Will Shape Learning," Economist Intelligence Unit, 2008.
  8. Shannon D. Smith and Judith Borreson Caruso, with an introduction by Joshua Kim, The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2010  (ECAR Research Study, vol. 6, 2010), (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2010), p. 91, Figure 6-14.
  9. Gail Salaway, Judith Borreson Caruso, and Mark Nelson, The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2007 (Research Study, vol. 6, 2007), (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2007), p. 17 and pp. 84–88.
  10. Kathryn Masterson, "Private Giving to Colleges Dropped Sharply in 2009," Chronicle of Higher Education, February 23, 2010.
  11. "2009 Household Charitable Giving Down Five Percent from 2008," press release, Association of Fundraising Professionals, May 27, 2010.
  12. Digital Campus, "Episode 44 – Unsettled," podcast September 30, 2009.
  13.  "Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology," released October 23, 2009. Note two places in this speech: (1) "We must encourage more state stem efforts...linking universities and private industry..." and (2) in the section Federal Role, "In addition to the Race to the Top, we have $650 million for [the] Investing in Innovation program…," with small, medium, and large grants highlighted.