Unpacking the Universitywide UNC-2U Partnership

Three questions for Andrew Hermalyn, 2U’s president of global partnerships.

February 7, 2021

I’ve known Andrew Hermalyn, 2U’s president of global partnerships, for almost a decade. Andrew is widely respected across higher education for his expertise, calm demeanor and straightforward approach to working with colleges and universities. Given 2U’s recent announcement of a strategic partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I thought that the time was right to ask Andrew to participate in a Q&A.

Q: Andrew, thanks for taking some time to help me get my head around the recently announced strategic partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill and your company, 2U. What does it mean for a university to enter into a “strategic partnership”? How is this different from what we think of as a typical school/OPM relationship?

A: Every decision we make in higher ed needs to be fundamentally grounded in student access and success. It can take weeks, months and sometimes years for nonprofit university leadership to fully vet and launch a new program, innovation or initiative, weighing the up-front costs to get these programs off the ground with gaining faculty support and ensuring great student outcomes. And launching new programs is one thing: making them successful -- meaning delivering on the university mission to open academic and career pathways for students -- is another thing entirely.

Burning Glass just released a report that highlighted the troublingly high failure rate of new college programs: 26 percent of new online programs launched by colleges in 2013 produced zero grads five years later. Unsuccessful, unsustainable program investments are painful on several fronts. First, it’s an incredible financial blow to colleges, particularly now that more than two-thirds of college and university presidents say strengthening financial stability is among their most pressing concerns. Second, programs that are misaligned to student and industry market demand take up space that could otherwise be used to drive real outcomes for students and regional employers that want to source talent from nearby institutions.

These pain points are avoidable. And with more programs moving online, quality matters now more than ever. The pandemic has helped university leaders and faculty realize that creating high-quality online education demands a sophisticated capability set, including many that are outside the traditional university structure.

UNC-Chapel Hill understands this better than most. They also understand that a truly innovative digital strategy can’t be siloed in individual colleges and schools, and it can’t be a Band-Aid solution. To reach its fullest potential, a digital learning program has to be a fully integrated, long-term play executed across the university as a whole. Over the next decade, 2U will help UNC-Chapel Hill deliver on that goal by being a trusted partner that’s invested in long-term success -- not just a vendor selling one-off solutions.

Q: One thing that I’ve always liked about you is that you have been open (at least in our conversations) to listening to the criticisms of the online program management industry. Most of these critiques center around two things -- the proportion of revenues that go to the company (often two-thirds), and the long-term contracts (five to 10 years). How are you addressing those concerns?

A: We really try to listen to and embrace our critics, because that’s how we deliver better institutional and student outcomes. Our first-ever 2U Transparency Report, which you covered last year, is a great example: prior to its release, nobody in the OPM space released information about revenue share agreements, how university-online provider agreements are structured, or insight into how we’re serving our partners and students in online programs. So we’re really proud to be the standard bearer in setting a benchmark that the entire industry -- ourselves included -- can use to measure performance.

That transparency builds trust in the industry, and that trust leads to greater innovation. 2U’s partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill is a great example. We first started working together in 2010 when 2U and UNC Kenan-Flagler launched an online M.B.A. Today, we power four graduate degrees and four boot camps and have educated thousands of students in Carolina and beyond. Now, over the next 10 years, UNC-Chapel Hill is committed to increasing online program offerings across the university, including graduate degrees, certificates and professional development programs, all powered by 2U. That’s a big investment, and it’s hard to do. We’re really honored to have earned their trust and confidence so that we can continue to help them operationalize and realize their universitywide digital learning vision.

To us, that’s the key in moving from OPM to digital transformation partner -- we work together with our partners to build great programs and leverage each other’s strengths to drive quality at scale. With UNC-Chapel Hill, 2U is bringing our proprietary technologies, learning design and operational economies of scale to build and power sustainable, high-quality digital learning programs. Meanwhile, UNC-Chapel Hill is doing what they do best: its faculty are leading the development of programs with 2U’s learning design team, overseeing core academic and operational functions to drive student access and success, and using learnings to advance digital education research through the creation of the University’s Digital Education Research Hub.

In this way, the UNC-Chapel Hill partnership flies in the face of the typical OPM model in that our work is intentionally designed to execute a holistic, long-term online strategy -- not a one-and-done program deal. UNC-Chapel Hill is making a conscious decision to integrate digital and hybrid learning across the university as a whole, extending its potential across both traditional academic and workforce preparation programs to expand access to a wider group of learners in Carolina and beyond. Sophisticated partners like 2U can help universities map future opportunities and implement best practices across their institutions, which is something I think a lot of people don’t know OPMs can really do.

Q: The part of the UNC-2U partnership that really caught my eye is the commitment to treating this collaboration as an opportunity to gather and share data and analysis about the online learning programs, and support independent research and scholarship. What is the main goal?

A: I’m excited to see UNC-Chapel Hill’s Digital Education Research Hub come to life. While there has been a huge spike in remote learning in the past year due to COVID-19, universities have been developing digital transformation plans well before the pandemic accelerated the adoption of online programs. Despite that, there is not enough research about the efficacy of online learning across both degree and nondegree modalities. There is even less research about how online learning programs can be successfully adopted and integrated across an entire university the way UNC-Chapel Hill is now doing. There must be proportionate data, analysis and research to meet the surge in online education so we can better diagnose areas of opportunity and make smart recommendations as an industry, particularly as more institutions broaden their approach to online learning in the future.

2U has a deep bench of industry experts that help our university partners build science-supported learning frameworks and dynamic virtual classroom experiences. We’re looking for ways that we, as industry leaders, can use data and evidence to ensure online education is delivering on the promise of higher education to unlock social and economic mobility for a larger population of people. There is a lot of discussion about online versus in-person education and how it drives value for students, but academically independent, university-backed research and analysis will help us understand greater opportunities for learners in the long term.


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