What Matters Most: Quality, Access, Outcomes and Sustainability

Kevin Carey's critique of the corporate role in inflating the price of online education singled out 2U. In this essay, CEO Chip Paucek answers back.

April 17, 2019
 

From the beginning, 2U Inc. was founded on a core belief that what matters most is building sustainable, high-quality online offerings -- which today include degrees, short courses, professional certificates and, soon, boot camps -- that expand access and deliver life-changing student outcomes. Over the past decade, we’ve turned this belief into reality in partnership with 36 great universities from around the globe. And with our recently announced acquisition of Trilogy, that universe of partners will soon expand to 68 world-class institutions.

We believe that any constructive and credible conversation, in the media or among policy makers, about the cost or value of online education must be grounded in four principles: quality, access, outcomes and sustainability. It was disappointing to see that Kevin Carey, in his essay in The Huffington Post last week, failed to thoughtfully cover and discuss these crucial factors in his critique of the OPM sector and 2U specifically.

Let me be clear: we recognize that the rising cost of higher education is a real and legitimate concern, and we are actively working on innovations that we believe will be part of the longer-term solution. But if Carey’s piece had focused on quality, access, outcomes and sustainability, readers would have learned that 2U-powered programs deliver on all four of these principles.

For example, in the past decade, Georgetown University’s 2U-powered nursing program has graduated 1,600 students and has a board passage rate of 98 percent, with one million hours clocked at clinical placement sites across the country. Or that members of the first cohort of students in Yale University’s new online physician assistant program (the first of its kind) hail from 11 different states and without our partnership would have had to uproot their lives and move to pursue a degree from such an iconic institution.

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Or that the average retention rate in 2U-powered programs over the past 11 years has been 82 to 84 percent. Or that 2U has never lost a university partner and that 12 of our partners, which are sophisticated and discerning institutions, have chosen to extend their contracts with us until the late 2020s or mid-2030s. For 2U and our partners, quality, access, great outcomes and sustainability are not an option -- they are essential ingredients for the success of students, universities and ultimately 2U.

When it comes specifically to the question of access, Carey’s piece simply misses the mark. 2U and our partners help expand access in two ways. First, one of the greatest opportunity costs of attending an on-campus graduate program is lost income. Most master’s and doctorate-level students are working adults who historically had to quit a job, and often move, in order to attend a top-tier university for graduate school.

Not anymore. Even when online and on-campus tuition are comparable, students are obtaining degrees of equal quality and rigor. The average actual cost and debt burden of attending a 2U-powered program is significantly less once you factor in ongoing income and the room and board savings, which in some cities can be as high as 25 to 40 percent of tuition.

Second, we’re creating greater access to higher education by attracting to our partner programs students who, on average across our portfolio, are more diverse from both a race and gender perspective than students in comparable on-campus programs. These two forms of access are interconnected. The quality, convenience, cost savings and flexibility of 2U-powered programs make graduate education more accessible to historically underrepresented students -- a clear benefit Carey conveniently chose to overlook.

Beyond quality, outcomes and access, it’s critical for the programs we power to be sustainable. Achieving that is not easy, so we need to have a transparent and honest conversation about what it actually costs -- both in up-front and ongoing investment -- to build and scale truly sustainable world-class online degree programs. And it’s also critical to discuss whether it’s reasonable, rational and appropriate for that investment and risk capital to be shouldered exclusively by schools or in collaboration with a strategic partner like 2U.

As a public company, not only do all of our partners openly disclose that they work with 2U, but the scale and scope of our investments are available for anyone to see, as noted recently by Josh Kim in his Inside Higher Ed article “Reading Latest 2U 10K as Academic Research.”

That’s a level of transparency we would welcome across the entire OPM market. What’s unfortunate about Carey’s article is that he fails to acknowledge the fact that, absent 2U’s expertise, each one of our program partners would need to invest their own scarce capital and hire in-house talent to expertly deliver what we deliver through 2UOS, our dynamic, proprietary operating system.

That expertise comes from spending the past decade investing nearly $1 billion into cutting-edge digital marketing; a purpose-built learning tech platform that powers weekly, intimate live classes; online course production at scale; and clinical placements (almost 50 percent of 2U-powered degrees are in licensure-based disciplines), as well as critical capabilities like accessibility, privacy and cybersecurity.

All of these, both individually and collectively, are essential to building, delivering and sustaining world-class digital education at scale, and they all cost real money and require genuine expertise.

By taking the responsibility, both financially and operationally, to deliver all of these services to our partners, we give them the freedom, flexibility and opportunity to focus on what ultimately matters most and what they do best: great teaching. Carey’s article simply glosses over or intentionally ignores these realities, perhaps because they don’t fit easily into his narrative.

So instead, why don’t we engage in a constructive dialogue? We’re happy to host. We invite Inside Higher Ed, New America, 2U our partners and competitors to join us. Together we can have a thoughtful, balanced, fact-based dialogue -- one that responsibly acknowledges the complexity of the issues at play, including the rising cost of higher education, while fostering more well-informed journalism and public policy.

Bio

Christopher (Chip) Paucek is co-founder and CEO of 2U Inc.

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