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ARLINGTON, Va. -- During almost 30 years as a for-profit college official and as president of two companies that help colleges and universities deliver their academic programs digitally, Steve Fireng has had a front-row view of the evolution of online higher education.

The early days, he said at a conference here last week, were best described as "deans gone wild," in which individual schools or departments (usually a business school) within larger universities, acting independently and untethered to any larger institutional strategy, started an online program and (usually) saw it take off.

Senior leaders at the institution noticed the money (usually) rolling in to that school and said, "Go launch more," resulting in what Fireng characterized as a "disaggregated bunch of programs across the university." Because these deans and their institutions were ahead of their nonprofit peers in going online, many of these programs succeeded financially.

Those days are gone, Fireng said during a discussion about growth in online education (and the role of outside companies in enabling online programs) at the P3•EDU conference on public-private partnerships. As more and more institutions have created online programs, and growing numbers seek to increase the scale of their offerings, it is no longer enough to "take your top 10 programs and put them online," said Fireng, global chief executive officer of Keypath Education, an online program management -- OPM -- company (a moniker he and others would like to change -- more on that later).

"You have to be smarter about what you're launching," Fireng said, by looking at what local employers are seeking in their employees, where there are openings in the surrounding market (yes, there are still geographic markets even online), and what programs are strong and consistent with an institution's mission.

Fireng's comments came as part of a discussion among the leaders of several companies that butter their bread helping colleges go online. Not surprisingly, the corporate CEOs as a group are bullish on online education -- but they also warned (also not surprisingly) that going online requires more sophistication than many institutions can muster on their own.

These are increasingly fraught times for the OPMs, with growing scrutiny from think tank analysts concerned about the corporate role in educational delivery and legislation in California that could limit the ability of such companies to operate in the state.

The OPMs are also under attack from within their own ranks, as 2U's co-founder, John Katzman, who now runs Noodle, another online enabler, said of the ed-tech industry at another panel here last week: “At a lot of schools, online programs are 20 percent more expensive than their on-campus counterpart. We’ve effectively raised the cost of education. So, I have to ask, are we properly using taxpayers’ dollars?”

Participants on the panel focused on "debunking myths" about the companies, including the "notion that the folks on the stage are actually standing behind the scenes holding the marionette strings forcing the programs to do certain things," as Chip Paucek, whose company, 2U, was the primary target of a highly critical essay by New America's Kevin Carey last month, put it.

"We are not in charge. The school is in charge of all the important things," Paucek said. "I do more of the expensive things, and they’re hard to do."

"The universities control their scale, ambition, academic and admissions standards, graduation standards, financial aid," said Beth Hollenberg, co-founder and president of Everspring, another online enabler. "And the university continues to set its tuition pricing."

The CEOs both defended the revenue-share model that has dominated the OPM industry until now and noted that it is evolving. In many cases, the company makes a major up-front investment (which can reach into the millions) to build and launch an online program, and "the tuition revenue share is a way of recouping that up-front investment" and sharing the risk of failure, Hollenberg said. The combination of the imbalanced revenue shares (which can reach 70-30 in favor of the outside company) and policies that lock a college in for a decade or more is getting growing pushback, so many providers are adding or embracing a fee-for-service approach instead.

Much of the concern about the role of outside companies in delivering online instruction flows from the checkered history of for-profit colleges and universities, and fears that the profit motive incentivizes corporate partners to push universities to prioritize revenue over student well-being. Consumer advocates want state and federal regulators to step up their scrutiny of these partnerships.

Todd Zipper, co-president of Wiley Education Services and Learning House, argued that "a very sophisticated set of regional accreditors" and the Education Department have access to contracts between universities and online enablers and can closely monitor these relationships.

But Paucek of 2U said he believed the companies need to do a better job of policing themselves to make sure that "we don’t have bad actors." Several efforts are afoot to bring online enablers together on a set of shared practices and standards, but reaching agreement across a broad and diverse set of companies is likely to be difficult.

Last week it was hard to get them to agree even on what to call themselves, although they generally agreed that "OPM" isn't the right name. "We do a bunch of things that aren't online and aren't about academic programs," said Paucek.

Hollenberg said she favored "digital enablement" to describe the various roles Everspring plays in helping universities update their instructional delivery for the digital era.

Zipper offered up "academic program management," since Wiley and Learning House are increasingly helping colleges expand the reach and improve the delivery of in-person programs, too. Fireng agreed, saying that his company's key role was in creating a "seamless student experience" wherever and however a learner learns.

"At a lot of schools, it's online students over here, on-ground students there," Fireng said. "The schools that do a really great job think about them as their students, period."

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