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A new study from Pennsylvania State University education policy scholars assessing online program managers in higher education concludes that it is important to have an agreed-upon and consistent definition for how to define an OPM. The authors—John J. Cheslock, Kevin Kinser, Sarah T. Zipf and Eunjong Ra—acknowledge OPMs are controversial but also assert they have helped colleges “quickly establish and greatly expand their online programs.”

In their paper, “Examining the OPM: Form, Function, and Policy Implications,” the authors argue that programs scaling with OPMs can do so using two main strategies: some will develop their own capacities internally to manage online programs, while others will develop management capacity by forging agreements with external providers. Examples of the latter approach can be seen in Purdue University’s purchase of Kaplan and the University of Arizona’s partnership with Zovio, the authors say.

The authors argue that institutions often partner with OPMs because these companies have resources to help with the human and financial costs of establishing and expanding online programs. OPM companies can offer “ready-made expertise and financing models that look to guarantee a return to the university.” Contracting with an OPM is an expedient way for many institutions to ensure they will succeed, the authors argue.

More scrutiny of OPMs is needed, the authors argue, in order to determine whether they are merely providing management and technical support or if they are also engaged in instruction-related work. OPM firms have “avoided most regulatory scrutiny because they and their university partners blur this distinction,” the authors assert. They say that a more nuanced understanding of the “operationalized” practices of online program managers is needed.

Finally, the authors argue that OPM contracts are just “one strategy for extracting profit from a mostly nonprofit educational model. And, also bluntly, they are a way of doing so without attracting the level of regulatory scrutiny that is connected to the actual provision of for-profit higher education.” They further argue that since OPMs continue to expand and many of their contracts and practices remain a secret, distrust follows.

The authors conclude by saying that “relatively minor changes in existing policies could have enormous impact on the viability of the current online program management model and could have continued effects that reverberate across the landscape of outsourcing arrangements in higher education.” They argue that ground rules informed by “on-the-ground knowledge” would go a long way to preventing the risk that “polarizing assumptions and obfuscations” will continue to define the OPM debate.