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One area where we are failing ourselves in higher ed is our lack of research on OPMs.

We seem to be willing to sign agreements with online program management companies, but not engage in critical inquiry about their impact. Alternatively, we may choose not to partner with an OPM out of beliefs about these arrangements, making this decision in the absence of data.

The paucity of independent, critical, hypothesis, and data-driven research on the impact of university/OPM partnerships is particularly troubling during COVID-19. At a time when the need to introduce online degree and non-degree programs is at its peak, we as an industry have very little independent research and data to guide us in evaluating the wisdom of engaging with a for-profit online learning enabler.

When I think of OPM research, I do not think of analysis regarding specific university programs or individual OPM providers. The research that I want to see - and which I’d like to engage in - is not about should school X partner with OPM Y on a new online program.

Instead, the sort of OPM research that I want to see done (by academics at colleges and universities) is more foundational. We need to engage in the basic research on the efficacy and impact of non-profit/for-profit partnerships to build a base of knowledge. Absent foundational research, we will lack the vocabulary and core knowledge necessary to derive research questions built around testable hypotheses.

What might be some of the basic research questions that we could ask about OPMs?

First, we should get a clear handle on levels and trends. As I understand things, most of the knowledge about the size, composition, shape, makeup, and growth of non-profit/for-profit partnerships in online learning is locked up in the minds (and paid research products) of for-profit consulting companies. I’ve seen excellent work, and some great reports come from companies such as HolonIQ, EduventuresHuron, Entangled, and others.

To give you a taste of this work, a February 2019 report by HolonIQ called The Anatomy of an OPM reveals that there are “60+ operators in a $3B+ market growing at 17%.”. The writers of the HolonIQ report measure some 600 existing university/OPM partnerships, and estimate that this figure will climb to near 800 by 2025. You can download a sample of The Anatomy of an OPM report for free on the HolonIQ site, but to get the full report (and more up-to-date analysis), you will have to become a paying client.

While I fully support the work of consulting companies in this space, I think a basic understanding of the OPM market should not be limited to those that can pay for it. Universities are at least partly in the business of creating knowledge. That knowledge should be free, open, and available all. Everyone working in the OPM space, from critics to boosters and schools to companies, works with their own data. We lack a common understanding, at least partly because we are all looking at different data.

What has been the impact of COVID-19 on the levels and trends of university/OPM partnerships? Are schools increasing their engagement with for-profit providers in developing new online programs? Are these programs mostly in the degree space, at the master’s level? Or is the growth in non-degree online credentials? We don’t know.

Once we can engage in and disseminate research on levels and trends, we can start to tackle some more challenging and impactful research questions. The big questions we need to answer are all about the impact of OPM partnerships on schools and learners. And there a million questions to ask. To throw out a few:

  • Were schools with existing OPM relationships for online programs better or worse prepared to pivot to remote learning when COVID-19 hit in the spring?
  • Do OPM partnerships catalyze or inhibit the creation of institutional capacity in digital and online learning?
  • Do OPM partnerships tend to result in integrated or siloed institutional structures across online and residential learning operations?
  • When all the internal direct and variable costs are accounted for, do schools realize higher or fewer revenues by partnering with an OPM?
  • All things being equal, does working with an OPM accelerate the pace of new online program development?
  • What is the impact of OPM partnerships on faculty acceptance and campus cultural climate around online education?
  • How do marketing and student acquisition costs differ across OPM-enabled and independent online programs?
  • How do student engagement measures, program quality, and time-to-degree compare across OPM-enabled and independent online programs?
  • What is the relationship between university/OPM partnerships and the prices that students pay for tuition and fees?
  • Is the OPM industry moving away from bundled services and revenue share models, and towards fee-for-service arrangements? What impact is this having on university online program development and student success?
  • What will be the impact on the OPM ecosystem of scaled online platform providers (such as Coursera and edX) as they enter the market for degrees and alternative credentials?
  • In existing university/OPM partnerships, what is the mix of spending by the OPM partner on the various aspects of online programs such as instruction, student support, marketing, technology, etc.?
  • How do OPM-enabled online programs differ in spending and investments compared to online programs that schools do on their own?

As higher education attempts to navigate through COVID-19, these OPM research questions take on a new urgency.

Please think about writing a letter to the editor (at or contacting me directly (I’m easy to find) if you have ideas about how academics may engage the sort of OPM research questions posed below.

There are lots of questions about how data can be collected, aggregated, and anonymized. Data would need to come from both schools that don’t work with OPMs and those that do. (Although many schools operate in a mixed environment of going it alone and working with a partner).

We would need data on both institutional and learner outcomes. These data are hard to come by, as institutional financial results can be highly opaque. (Especially at private non-profits). But just because these research questions would be hard to answer doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

Beyond data, there are questions about who would do the research? Are professors in departments of education or the business school the right people? Or should those who work on online programs be positioning their work as applied research?

Finally, there is the question of funding. Would foundations be interested in supporting this scholarship? Should the OPM industry be asked to fund independent research? Would funding from OPM companies compromise the legitimacy of research? What other funding mechanisms could we come up with to support this sort of independent, data-driven research on the impact for learners and schools of the online program management industry?

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