OPMs Are Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

Kevin Carey’s wake-up call, and the three things that online program management companies should do next.

April 10, 2019
 

Have you read Kevin Carey’s "The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education"?

Carey’s central argument is that partnerships between universities and OPMs to create new online programs is ultimately bad for students and for colleges alike.

His piece is a useful a wake-up call to OPMs and higher ed.

Carey’s biggest concern is the missed opportunity to use online revenue to reduce costs for students.

Rather than passing along the savings of online education to students -- as Carey argues that online means “no buildings to maintain, no lawns to mow, no juice bars and [no] lazy rivers” -- the tuition dollars are being instead converted to corporate profits for the OPMs.

Carey writes,

Nearly every academic institution, from the Ivies to state university systems to liberal arts schools, has refused to pass even the tiniest fraction of the savings on to students. They charge online students the same astronomical prices they levy for the on-campus experience.

The classic online program management business model is for the company to fund the costs of developing the online programs, recruiting the students and running the programs -- and in exchange the OPM received a share of the tuition. This revenue share to the OPM is typically around 60 percent.

The OPM market is growing, with Carey quoting Trace Urdan from Tyton Partners saying that the market is likely to be worth $8 billion by 2020.

The key sentence in Carey’s piece is:

What this means is that an innovation that should have been used to address inequality is serving to fuel it. Instead of students receiving a reasonably priced, quality online degree, universities are using them as cash cows while corporate middlemen hoover up the greater share of the profits.

So what should the OPM company be doing?

We have three recommendations:

Recommendation No. 1: Take This Seriously

It might be tempting for the OPM industry to dismiss Carey’s article. After all, every OPM company that we know says that they are different. Each says that they are built around values of creating shared value for both their university partners and students. They will swear that the critiques of Carey and others may apply to their competitors, but not to them.

This would be a mistake.

The views that Carey is expressing are widely held across academia, and more importantly, they’re right. OPMs should be helping colleges innovate and lower costs.

Recommendation No. 2: Engage In Open, Critical and Transparent Dialogue

If OPMs take seriously the objections that Carey raises, what should they do?

The answer is to engage. This engagement, however, cannot follow the typical ed-tech playbook. It needs to be open, critical and transparent.

Take the hypothesis seriously that OPMs are not benefiting students. That online education should be less expensive. That schools should be investing in their own capacity. Help them figure out how to do so. Build a model that works in partnership, not in place of. Be open to critique and criticism. Companies and schools should work together to treat these partnerships as experiments.

Mostly, the leaders in the OPM industry need to find a way to authentically join the academic conversation about the future of higher education.

Recommendation No. 3: Support Independent Scholarship

Our third recommendation is about the need for independent scholarship on online learning.

We think that our academic world has not moved quickly enough to examine the changing nature of higher education through a scholarly lens. We can imagine the OPM companies supporting independent scholarship in two ways.

First, these companies -- and their partner universities -- can make data available. These data can be student outcome data and institutional financial data. The data can be aggregated and anonymized.

Second, OPM companies could commit to providing financial support for independent and unbiased research and publication. We think that this sort of scholarship would ultimately benefit online learning.

If the OPM companies honestly believe that their business models are to the benefit to both students and schools, then they will only benefit from having those outcomes be the subject of research and publication.

What are the next steps we should be taking to move this conversation forward? Who might convene OPM critics, companies, universities and scholars to initiate a different sort of conversation?

Inside Higher Ed's Inside Digital Learning

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