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Online program managers are not the enemy

Headlines are hard to miss: A ‘creeping capitalist takeover of higher education’ is underway as ‘college finances are eaten away from within’. The alleged culprit? Online program management companies. These “predators” seek to “exploit vulnerable institutions” because they “steal half or more of tuition fees”. So argues Erik Gilbert (in The Chronicle) and Kevin Carey (in The HuffPost) in two of the most provocative essays in a series of recent thought-provoking articles that fall somewhere along the continuum between justified concern and irresponsible, fear-mongering thinking.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about OPMs, especially given the ongoing regulatory review by the Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission, and Congressional investigations into OPMs in particular. These investigations tend to focus on potential abuses and the excessive reorientation of federal student aid and tuition fees towards large corporations. Yet the pause given by these legitimate concerns risks turning into paralysis if we allow the discourse around such complex challenges to be tainted with oversimplifications and flawed assumptions.

The problem with much of the OPM criticism is that it assumes that the college culture, one way or another, will always succumb to the corporate mindset.

Gilbert, citing a Century Foundation report, argues that colleges are “taken care of from within” by OPMs, then citing a “steering committee” at a university that included staff from an OPM. This fear-mongering example does not help us understand the extent to which colleges can and should retain responsibility for the content of their marketing, recruiting and counseling messages. Meanwhile, Carey suggests that we make “the price of online degrees commensurate with what colleges actually spend to run courses,” failing to recognize that schools do not separate these expenses from the total cost of education. ‘student throughout the study program. These reviews suggest that online programs are cheaper to run than those in the field, which is often not the case.

We need a more informed discussion on PMS. As Dean of Continuing Studies and former Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and General Studies, I have seen with my own eyes what can go well in such arrangements. And the reality is that the reasons why OPM deals fail are much more complex than those presented in the press, and usually involve missteps on the part of the university and the vendor.

For example, the case recently highlighted in a the Wall Street newspaper An article on the University of Southern California’s use of 2U – an OPM – for its social work program illustrates a range of problems. These include potentially overly aggressive recruiting, a lack of initial strategy, and a failure to provide adequate career support while launching an expensive program in a field with low base salaries. It is a complex situation, and not entirely the result of the actions of the OPM.

The problem with much of OPM media criticism is the assumption that college culture, one way or another, will always succumb to the corporate mindset. It is alarmist and unrealistic thinking. Like it or not (and it looks like many faculty members don’t want it), PMSs are here to stay. As some examples highlighted by Diving into higher education show, OPMs are responsible for benefits such as freeing up classroom space at Amherst College, providing instructional design support to Vanderbilt University and the University of Maryland system, and using Howard University to start an online MBA program. A market research firm tracked no less than 85 new OPM contracts in the first six months of 2020 alone.

If PMSs are such predatory partners, why would universities continue to contract with them? The answer is that PMSs can be invaluable tools for universities trying to leverage technology to address challenges of scale and complexity, whether that is to deal with declining enrollment, to improve curricula for students. adult learners or better prioritize institutional resources and student needs.

As a career academic administrator, I have encountered my share of frustrating scenarios. I have witnessed the grief of veterans walking through the doors of a large central Atlantic university to learn they needed student loans because their GI Bill benefits had already been spent on programs for purpose. lucrative whose credits were not transferred. I have seen a private New England university incur the fixed costs and limited scalability of building its own call center when such functions can be outsourced with cost savings and flexibility.

After navigating such experiences, I have learned that the defensive squat of “just let’s do it in-house” is not the answer to everything. I have also learned that good online program management requires the regular and continuous translation of academic values ​​into operational execution.

Fortunately, we are already seeing more progress in the industry towards agile online program management, including, as my Georgetown colleague Edward J. Maloney wrote, towards more dynamic criteria for determining when and how. engage with OPMs. Technologically, resources like the International Institute for Analytics, a nonprofit think tank, are helping some colleges adopt many of the best IT independence and data maturity strategies that have for too long eluded the public eye. academia. I have also had success in OPM à la carte missions. These include controlling OPMs for their reach in certain populations, such as military-related students or high school students, to secure tight contracts emphasizing these demographics; and outsourcing to a diversified global electronics technology company solely for its premier recruiting services.

These examples show how OPMs can be used less as monolithic service providers and more as strategic partners allowing discerning universities to selectively choose the services and features they want. Since a similar approach could serve your institution well, here are five tips to keep in mind when customizing your own approach to PMI management:

  • Assess the college’s institutional resources and appetite for resisting financial risks. Colleges have a level of fiduciary responsibility that private companies and entrepreneurial investors do not. We can be an entrepreneur in specific practices and approaches, but we are not entrepreneurs and we should not invest institutional resources as if we were venture capitalists. These are clear lines to watch, especially when the sources of funding are tied to tuition fees.
  • Consider the total cost of ownership when evaluating options. The choice to hire an OPM should be informed by holistic financial assessments that include the hidden or incidental costs behind each option. If we’re worried about OPM’s revenue share, for example, we should also do a proper analysis and forecast of what it would actually cost over a period of years to create a program in-house – then weigh in. that compared to the cost of going with an OPM.
  • Evaluate and expand options for revenue sharing and fee-for-service models. Colleges should work with PMSs to develop a range of financial options, a matrix of choices that display the costs and benefits of any revenue sharing or fee-for-service model. Leverage knowledge of an OPM’s business model to negotiate contracts with favorable terms that include guaranteed performance benchmarks or diminishing revenue shares for the partner over time as a program evolves and changes are made. costs stabilize.
  • Design the OPM agreement to emphasize the student experience and college culture. The OPM should invest heavily in high-quality student experiences, pumping money into technology, analysis and consulting. Prospective students should experience the institution’s culture from the start, with a seamless transition to their study programs. This requires close collaboration between the OPM and the institutional team, including the faculty.
  • Ensure that the academic institution continues to oversee the marketing and recruiting functions supported by the OPM. Universities should retain some degree of autonomy and strategic control over their marketing and recruiting functions, including through digital marketing service providers separate from OPM, if necessary. From admission criteria to marketing messages and admissions advice, the model should be transparent and the college should guide and approve processes and content.

These strategies can help institutions steer an OPM relationship in productive and mission-focused directions. As Erik Gilbert and others rightly point out, the need for greater transparency around such arrangements is omnipresent. Another positive step would be to clarify governance and best practices – perhaps by expanding funding for the Department of Education’s Education Research and Innovation Program to include post-secondary education with a higher education focus.

The department could carry out a study of public-private / OPM partnerships with different types of institutions and partner models, making the results available to the public. Such voluntary studies could shed light on the elements and results that allow colleges to remain responsible for education, avoid unnecessary legislation, and easily replicate lower cost and better partnership models. We need to standardize quality decisions about OPM contracts and the design of such partnerships – with strong consideration of the implications for institutions based on their size, missions and finances. Additionally, consortium models could allow nonprofit colleges to share best practices in line with compliance guidelines – helping institutions of all sizes make OPM agreements work for them without having to reinvent the wheel every time. .

The imperative here is to separate the signal from the noise – noise being the misrepresentation of the real costs of producing, marketing and delivering programs online. Different groups within higher education may continue to disagree about the usefulness of PMIs, but we need to elevate the conversation to a more productive, data-driven dialogue about what actually works for institutions – and what which does not work. This could help solve the modern dilemma of colleges struggling to balance financially sustainable programming with the need to support a quality institution’s teaching, research, extracurricular and business activities.