The Need for a Values-Based Case for OPMs

Why the online program management industry must adopt academic norms of critical self-evaluation.

January 16, 2019

This past week there were two significant developments related to online program management (OPM) companies.

The first announcement came from 2U, which announced a new partnership with Tufts University to develop online master's programs in health informatics/analytics and public health.

The second piece of news came from Emeritus -- a company currently working with schools such as MIT, Columbia, Dartmouth, Wharton, UC Berkeley and London Business School -- which completed a $40 million Series C funding round.

Taken as discrete announcements, neither the 2U nor the Emeritus developments are all that significant for the larger higher ed ecosystem. When viewed as part of a larger trend, these developments should be understood as signals of a larger trend toward the growing integration of nonprofit educational institutions and for-profit educational companies.

Many in higher ed are worried about the OPM model.

To put this more plainly, many in higher ed don’t much like the OPM model and have little regard for the companies in this space.

There is a risk, mostly unrecognized by OPM incumbents and new entrants alike, that the OPM industry will make the same mistakes in branding that the for-profit education industry made in years past.

That mistake is to assume that the negative feelings that many in academia have about for-profit schools would not impact individual players, as long as they delivered on value and quality. In effect, some well-run and reputable for-profit universities thought that by differentiating their offerings from the larger field of for-profits, they’d be able to stand out and prosper.

The for-profits did not pay enough attention to their image and brand reputation as an industry, and as a result, they all experienced dramatic reversals of fortune when the regulatory, competitive and economic environments changed.

I worry that the OPM industry has not learned the lessons available from the earlier generation of for-profit schools.

Collectively, it is in the individual self-interest of OPM companies to come together to make a case for the model of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships.

If the OPM companies were to come together, however, it would not be enough for this industry collective to focus only on marketing and branding. Instead, the OPM industry needs to come to grips with the reality that long-term success will require the adoption of a set of norms and values common to nonprofit academia.

These norms include transparency, openness and critical self-evaluation.

These values include the insistence that financial outcomes are only one element of a measure of success, and that while higher education needs to be self-sustaining, business models are always in service of a broader set of (nonmonetary) goals. A place to start would be for the OPM industry to acknowledge and validate the concerns of many in higher ed. These concerns include:

  • That in partnering with an OPM, schools may forgo the opportunity to develop core educational capacities in instructional design, media, simulations and other learning-related domains.
  • That the ultimate goals of schools and OPM providers can be incompatible, in that OPMs are businesses that need to serve the needs of investors, where colleges and universities are institutions designed and run to serve the common good.
  • That the standard business model of OPMs, where the companies put in up-front capital and expertise in exchange for a revenue share and long-term agreements, will result in a diminishing value proposition for schools over the length of the contracts.
  • That there is a danger that faculty autonomy and the ability of institutions to make choices beyond those that maximize revenue will be complicated by the outsourcing of online program development and running to for-profit companies.
  • That the OPM industry will ultimately drive up the cost of education for students, as for-profit companies invest much more substantial sums in “customer acquisition” (marketing to potential students) than traditional nonprofits.
  • That data on investments, operations and student outcomes are held as proprietary, considered as part a company’s competitive information, not freely shared and available in line with the norms of information sharing followed across nonprofit education.
  • That independent scholarship on the institutional and student outcomes associated with OPM enabled programs is inhibited, as partnership contracts restrict the ability of schools to share data.

As an industry, the OPM companies need to acknowledge the legitimacy of these concerns. It is not enough to claim that an individual OPM is “better than the rest” and “committed to upholding the values of the schools with which they partner.”

Every OPM claims that it is different. Every company says it is motivated by values of creating resources for schools and opportunities for students. Every OPM says that schools retain full academic autonomy, with the choice about which programs to do and which curriculum to develop and which students to admit.

As an industry, the OPM providers must commit to a different sort of investment in independent assessment, evaluation and scholarship. And as an industry, the OPM providers must create a space to engage in active listening about the concerns of many in higher ed around for-profit partnerships in educational programs.

How this needed evolution will come about, from a set of competitive companies to an industry that understands its responsibility to align its practices to academia, I don’t know.

Either some outside player needs to bring the OPM industry together (a foundation, a professional association, a consultancy, a university, a media entity?) -- or some leader among the OPM companies need to step up.

It is not even clear to me where the OPM industry might come together to even talk about its collective future.

What are your thoughts about the OPMs?

Where might we have this discussion about the current and future impact of online program management companies on higher education?

How might the OPMs avoid the mistakes of the for-profit universities?


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