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The rise of the online program management industry is a positive development, enabling schools to create new online programs and build new sources of revenues. Or it is a worrisome development, threatening the mission-driven orientation of the universities that partner with OPMs, and driving up the prices of postsecondary credentials.

Can both of these be true? Are OPMs a good thing or a bad thing for higher ed? Is partnering with an OPM a good or a bad thing for an individual college or university? What is being gained and what is being lost as more institutions enter into agreements with OPMs to build new degree and nondegree online programs?

How should an individual university evaluate the decision to partner with an OPM? And if a school decides to work with an OPM, how should the decision about which OPM to work with be made?

Our positive and negative beliefs about the online program management industry are, today, mostly based on either our experiences (OPMs at our schools) or our existing biases. If we’ve had a good experience with an OPM partner, then we are more likely to look favorably upon the larger OPM trend. If we are generally critical about the intermingling of for-profit companies and nonprofit universities, then we are likely to be more wary about OPMs.

What all of us lack when it comes to evaluating OPMs is much in the way of independent analysis and good data.

This is a shame. It is unusual nowadays for a week to go by without a newly announced university/OPM partnership. The OPM landscape is shifting more quickly than we can keep track of, much less hope to gain a data-informed understanding.

The question that our community should be asking ourselves is who will step up to meet the OPM analysis challenge? Where might we see the capacity being developed for independent, critical and widely available scholarship about university and OPM partnerships?

I see six possibilities:

1. Universities

Some school could start a Center for the Study of Public/Private Educational Partnerships, or some similarly named institute. This center would provide a home for critical scholarship on OPMs. Situating a home for research on OPMs within a university would help ensure that norms of independence, autonomy and peer review are met.

2. Professional Associations

A focus on OPMs seems like an ideal place for a professional association to build deep expertise and a community of practice. A professional association, such as EDUCAUSE, UPCEA, OLC, POD, WCET or ACE, could bring together both university and for-profit players. Conferences and publications around the OPM industry could be planned.

3. Foundations

There is an acute need for independent research and accessible data related to OPMs. Most of the available analysis of OPMs today is not independent -- as it is done by consulting companies that have OPMs as clients. Or the analysis is not freely available -- only paying clients get access to data. Nor do we have a clearinghouse of available school/OPM contracts, or anything like a data set of institutional and participant OPM outcomes. A foundation such as Gates or Lumina could help correct the market failure of independent critical scholarship related to OPMs by providing funding and expertise.

4. Consulting Companies

Most of the best analysis of OPMs seems to be coming from the consultants: our friends Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill at MindWires. Research from Eduventures and Entangled Solutions. Analysis from Huron and other larger consulting groups. Some of this research is open and freely available. Some of this analysis is doggedly independent (Michael and Phil). There is deep expertise in the consulting world around unpacking OPM trends. How might all this research be aggregated and made public?

5. The Higher Ed Press

There seems to be an opportunity for either Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle or EdSurge to step up in a big way around OPMs. The higher ed press has the ability to do independent analysis and reporting, to share results widely, and to convene communities of practice. How a news organization might develop a business model for deep and sustained research about OPMs is not completely clear. I think that there are opportunities for underwriting and sponsorship.

6. The OPM Companies Themselves

I’ve argued that the OPM industry needs its own professional association. That the individual OPM companies would benefit by thinking as an industry, and by adopting more of the norms and practices of the schools in which they partner. An industry-funded group committed to independent analysis would ultimately serve the needs of the OPM companies, as there is a risk (I think) of an OPM backlash. Which company in this fiercely competitive industry would step up to provide industrywide leadership is a question that I don’t have an answer for.

What is missing from this list? From 2008 to 2016 I would have included the Department of Education as a potential partner. Nowadays? Maybe I could be surprised.

So who will step up to the scholarship, analysis, data and community needs related to the growing OPM industry? How do we change the status quo so that each university is mostly alone in evaluating the decision to possibly partner with an OPM? What can we do to ensure that nonprofit/for-profit partnerships such as we find with OPMs will ultimately benefit students and schools?

Who will step up to the OPM challenge?

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