10 OPM Questions

A partial list of the things we don't know about working with an online program management provider.

October 31, 2018

The signal-to-noise ratio about online program management companies is suboptimal.

Everyone has an opinion about the wisdom of schools partnering with a for-profit provider to develop, market, launch, run and support degree and nondegree online programs. (Including faculty members, as seen in Inside Higher Ed's new Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, published elsewhere on “Inside Digital Learning” today.)

What none of us have are data.

Let us engage in a thought experiment. Say that we want to start a new online program in demography. I know that's unlikely to happen, as the market for population scientists seems to be smaller than the market for data scientists. But here, as in most places, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Demography is useful for all sorts of things.

Here are 10 questions reflecting 10 things about the OPM industry that I don't know:

  1. Should this online demography program be a nondegree certificate or a master's degree?
  2. How many up-front dollars would my school need to invest to develop, market, run and support an online program?
  3. Related to question No. 2 about money, what sort of people would we need to have on our campus (besides demographers to teach) to build and run this program?
  4. If the answers to question No. 1 are unclear, and the answers to No. 2 and No. 3 are "you don't have it," then does it make sense to talk to a potential OPM partner? The only reason OPMs exist is that they can provide things, like money, people and a risk appetite, that schools can't (or won't) provide themselves.
  5. If I'm going to talk to an OPM, which ones should I choose? There are too many OPM companies. I can't meet with 20. How do I narrow the list? Does anyone keep a master list of companies, schools and programs?
  6. What criteria should I use to evaluate a potential OPM partner? How can I judge the quality of the online program that they will produce? How do I know what the right revenue share should be? How should I think about the contract lock-in?
    The questions in No. 6 get to the heart of our OPM data desert. There is no clearinghouse for OPM data. Both contracts and outcomes between schools and companies are confidential. We don't even have anonymized outcomes or financial data. In practice, what we do is try to scare up information wherever we can. Some contracts with public institutions can be viewed. Sometimes schools or companies will share data about enrollments, graduations, costs and revenues.
  7. To make things more complex, I'm not sure how to evaluate what sorts of services that I want from an OPM. Should I look for a full-service bundle? One where the OPM develops and markets and runs the program? Or should I break apart the OPM bundle, working only with a partner, say, on marketing?
  8. Going back to the original decision to contact an OPM, how can I get comparison data and projections of working with a partner or doing everything in-house? What I want are outcome and financial data that compare a matched set of schools and programs. An OPM case-control study. It is not enough to only have data from schools working with OPMs.
  9. Now I'm at a loss about who to talk with to try and answer these first eight questions. Should I engage a consulting company such as Huron, Entangled or Eduventures? Maybe a professional association such as the National Council for Online Education (part of UPCEA), Educause or OLC? I can talk to peer schools, but it seems that at least private nonprofits are unable to share contract, expense and revenue data.
  10. Let's say that we have navigated all nine questions. We figured out which sort of online program (degree or nondegree) makes sense. We figured out if it makes sense to work with an OPM. We wrote a good set of partner requirements, and we found made a data-driven decision about which OPM to work with. Where do I then go and share what I've learned? Every OPM contract seems to have confidentiality clauses. There is no national clearinghouse to contribute financial and student outcome data. There is no association of OPM organizations or consortium of OPM members. How do I share what I've learned?

What are some other things that we don't know about OPMs?

Who is doing independent and unbiased research on the OPM industry and the changing nature of online education? Why haven't the professional associations or think tanks or philanthropic organizations stepped in to answer these questions? Why hasn't Inside Higher Ed planned an event about OPMs in its Leadership Series where companies, researchers, skeptics and existing and potential OPM partners gather for a day to talk? Are there academics within universities who are studying OPMs?

Does anyone want to start a new online population studies program with me?


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