Thinking About the Warren/Brown Letter to OPM CEOs

Who will step up?

January 29, 2020

Have you read the Jan. 23 letter from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to the CEOs of five OPM companies?

What do you think?

If you don’t have time to read the letter, I’ll try to summarize.

Warren and Brown appear to not be fans of the online program management industry. The first sentence of the letter reads,

We write to express concern about reports of business practices that Online Program Management (OPM) companies like [insert OPM company name] use, which appear to undermine the best interests of students…

The senators go on to write that:

  • Revenue-share agreements may violate federal law, “which prohibits pay commissions for recruiting and enrolling new students.”
  • Tuition-sharing agreements create “perverse” incentives that lead to “aggressive and deceptive recruiting practices.”
  • University partnerships with OPM companies result in student tuition costs for online programs that are no less expensive than face-to-face courses, even though “they are cheaper to operate.”
  • The allocation of federal student aid funding to OPM expenses such as recruiting, advertising and profit -- rather than instruction.

The senators go on to ask the CEOs of the five companies to produce a series of documents, including contracts, financial arrangements, lists of services provided, same presentation materials, expenditure and revenue figures, and analysis of compliance with the incentive compensation provisions of the Higher Education Act.

My guess is that your response to this letter will depend on what you think about nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in higher ed in general, and OPMs in particular.

We will read and respond to this letter based on what we already know to be true.

So here is what I think.

I don’t know if Senators Warren and Brown are right. When it comes to OPMs, I’ve seen lots of arguments, but little data. There does not seem to be any independent research on the impact of OPMs. There is no clearinghouse of anonymized data from which analysis can be conducted.

Arguments from both sides of the OPM debate seem to push each side to dig in to their positions, rather than open up space for constructive dialogue and debate.

Who is to blame for our failure to have independent, unbiased and data-driven research about the impact of university/OPM partnerships on students and schools? I think that there is plenty of blame to go around.

On the university side, none of us has seemed to step up to create the infrastructure for this research. To date, no president or provost has made the creation of research on nonprofit/for-profit partnerships a priority.

On the OPM side, no company has committed to funding independent research. No company has taken the lead in underwriting an independent entity to which schools and companies could contribute data and other materials that can be anonymized and then studied.

In the short run, these twin failures by schools and companies are understandable. Who has the money to set up the infrastructure for independent research?

In the long run, I think not having independent research will hurt both the OPM companies and the schools that are now working with -- or are considering working with -- an OPM provider. The lack of research leaves companies wide-open to legislative and regulatory actions, and schools vulnerable to entering into suboptimal contracts.

Who in the university or the OPM world will step up to a leadership role in enabling the infrastructure for independent research?

Share Article


Joshua Kim

Back to Top