Initial Evaluation of OPM Student Debt Claims

Looking at infamous Masters of Social Work example in more depth

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Does an institution working with an OPM for its online programs lead to greater indebtedness for its students?

Probably not, but it’s complicated.

In the current debate about OPMs in general and specifically the Department of Education review of incentive compensation and third party servicers (TPS), one of the assertions that is often explicitly or implicitly made is that schools working with OPMs leads to greater student debt.

For example in their announcement of the review on Feb 15th the Department argues that:

…the number of students recruited by entities operating under this exception has increased, particularly through online programs operated by third-party entities, including Online Program Managers (OPMs).

Given the growth in online enrollment and associated federal student debt…

Thus far I have seen no one provide any evidence for this claim, so I set out to investigate whether in fact it is true. If a higher education institution works with an OPM, do the students in those programs end up with larger debt loads? This is the first in a series of posts addressing this question.

Many of the discussions about OPMs and their impact reference the Online MSW degree program at the University of Southern California (USC) supported by 2U. According to recent Wiley research, the MSW is the second-largest program in the master's-level market based on the number of graduates per year, and fully 38% of MSW programs report having an online or hybrid option. To get an initial view into the question of OPMs and student debt, why not start by looking at the poster child for OPM affordability?

To understand debt associated with programs and OPMs, it helps to first look at the tuition costs of the programs themselves. I gathered data for twenty-five of the highest ranked online MSW programs. It is not a perfect list because:

  • It is difficult to find a ranking of online MSW programs that is not somehow sponsored by an OPM and for some programs. But this list is broadly reflective of the top ranked programs and is a mix of programs working with OPMs and those that are not.

  • The data are derived from the program’s websites, from College Scorecard data and from listings of OPM partnerships. None of these data is perfect - read the note at the end of this post for a more complete listing of caveats.

Here are some highlights of the data about the cost of tuition.

Most Expensive Highly Ranked Online MSW Programs

Least Expensive Highly Ranked Online MSW Programs

Update 4/5: U Nevado Reno uses Pearson as its OPM.

What can we conclude from the data?

MSW programs - both on campus and online - are overall very expensive given the kinds of careers to which they lead.

Looking at these two charts, it would be easy to conclude that programs supported by OPMs are more expensive. But I think that conclusion would be the wrong one for the following reasons:

OPMS tend to work with high-priced programs rather than causing them to be more expensive

There may also be a chicken and egg situation here. Programs are not necessarily expensive because they work with an OPM. But rather, an OPM is more likely to form a partnership with certain programs because they are higher priced.

I have anecdotal evidence of OPMs encouraging programs to raise prices, but I also have anecdotal evidence of them pushing for tuition rates to be lowered in order to be more competitive in the marketplace. It is more likely that OPMs are attracted to more expensive programs than lower price ones as it means more revenue, and I have talked to institutional staff that have been informally told by OPM providers that their new program was too low to be worth an OPM partnership. Looking at MSW data, I think we see this tendency in play.

The online MSW program cost tends to reflect the on-campus cost

In most cases the cost of the online MSW is the same as or very close to the cost of on-campus programs. There are some exceptions, such as the University of Denver and Syracuse University where on-campus programs cost a lot more, or the University of Oklahoma and Baylor University where they cost substantially less (and note that Oklahoma does not use an OPM). But overall, the online program cost is similar to on-campus costs. Online programs are relatively new phenomena: on-campus programs generally preceded the new modality and hence any OPM relationship. The cost of the expensive programs cannot be attributed to an OPM as the broad contours of the pricing were in place before that relationship.

I did try to see whether starting to work with an OPM caused a rise in cost for on-campus programs by looking at historical cost data. I was unable to find evidence of this as the historical cost data was hard to come by.

OPMS work with higher ranked and thus more expensive programs

Additionally, many OPMs tend to work with higher ranked programs as that makes recruitment easier. The College Scorecard lists 326 non-profit MSW programs in the US. Of these 33 work with an OPM. Of my top 25 list 13 do or did work with an OPM during the period for which data were collected. OPMs work more often highly ranked programs which tend to cost more.

Private versus public institutions

Of the 11 most expensive programs, all but two are associated with OPMs. In the list of the least expensive programs, all but one are not associated with OPMs. But it is important not to jump to conclusions here. I think there is more explanatory power in whether an institution is public or private. All eleven of the most expensive programs are private, and all seven of the least expensive programs are publics. At least on sticker price, privates tend to be more expensive.


While we cannot make blanket conclusions by looking at one program type, the initial view of OPM-enabled MSW programs does not lead to any obvious linkage between OPMs and student debt levels.

Some notes about the data:

  • Overall the data were very difficult to gather due to the opacity of program and university websites, which deserves a posting of its own. Online programs tended to be much clearer and transparent than on-campus options. I tried to be as consistent as I could (e.g., picking similar length programs and start dates).

  • Tuition is generally assessed per credit hour with the overall cost reflective of the number of hours required for the program.

  • Most of the tuition data excludes fees and other expenses such as textbooks. Some of the data does include fees, especially if the program itself included them in their summary of expected cost. But fees are generally a very small part of the overall cost.

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