Insights into Online Education and OPMs from the College Scorecard

Most public discussion around program-level College Scorecard data for student debt levels has focused on transparency in terms of helping students decide which schools to consider, but I think a more important potential benefit is for policy makers, institutions, EdTech vendors, and even investors. Better analyzed data should inform people and organizations making decisions on creating, funding, and supporting academic programs. A case in point is the insight that you can get by looking at a school that offers online programs, whether using an Online Program Management (OPM) partner or not.

Simmons University is a small private school in Boston, with women-focused undergraduate programs (fewer than 1,800 students) and co-educational graduate programs (similar numbers). Despite its small size, the school has two of 2U’s largest programs (Nursing and Social Work). Simmons has other programs signed up with 2U that were not active as of the beginning of July 2015.

Interestingly, Simmons also has an online Library Science program that does not use 2U or any other full-service OPM partner.

I combined the College Scorecard data with IPEDS and manual augmentations from public 2U and Simmons University websites to get a deeper look. Some notes first to better understand the data:

  • This Department of Education data set is preliminary and has not been reviewed by colleges and universities. The ED plans to release a final version in Fall 2019.

  • The data has been combined into two-year cohort groupings with the data below from July 2015 through June 2017.

  • I have listed below whether Simmons offered fully-online options for each program as of the 2015-17 cohort, but there are also on-campus versions of the same programs, and student counts and debt levels are aggregated.

  • The number of students is taken from the two-year cohort award grouping and not from the IPEDS student counts.

  • Update: The student count is the number of borrowers in the cohort, not the total number of students. Students who were enrolled during that cohort period but took out no Title IV-based student loans would not be included. For example, Simmons’ master’s of social work has a Count (shown below) of 440 but an IPEDS-derived cohort enrollment of 534, and master’s of nursing has a Count of 532 but an IPEDS-derived cohort enrollment of 684. The Median and Mean data goes across the borrower count.

  • Some programs do not show student debt levels due to this information being suppressed by the College Scorecard for privacy reasons (e.g. too few students would allow indirect determination of student identities).

One of the reasons that I chose Simmons University and 2U 1 as an example is that both organizations are remarkably transparent with their data. 2U is not the only publicly-held OPM company, but they are the main one where OPM is their primary business (unlike Pearson or Wiley), but even so, they provide more information than any other company. To keep this as an exploration of public data, I have not contacted either Simmons or 2U for commentary.

Simmons University Grad Programs by # Students and Median Student Debt Levels and Online Offerings

Some notes from my initial exploration of this data:

  • Tuition for the graduate programs ranges from $980 to $1,450 per credit hour with ~40 – 60 credit hours required for a degree. This leads to total tuition in the $50k – $70k range. But look at the median student debt levels, most of which are in the same rough range as total program tuition. Does nobody use their own money for graduate school? (Update: see note above about the Count data being for borrowers only. In Simmons’ case, roughly four in five students were borrowers.) Education seems to be the only academic discipline with student debt significantly below program tuition.

  • This data makes it more clear why a school might offer online programs. The three largest graduate programs, by far, have online offerings, and I would assume that the vast majority of students are online in these programs. For Simmons going online means the opportunity to move from dozens of students to hundreds of students per program. I realize this should not be the only, or even primary, reason for a school to offer graduate programs, but the data make this factor quite evident.

  • The two largest programs offered online are in partnership with 2U, and according to investor analysis, both Simmons and 2U make $10 – $20 million in tuition revenue per year.

  • The third largest program offered online, library science, is the only one at Simmons not using 2U or any OPM, at least that I can figure out. This makes an interesting case that I’d like to better understand. Why does this program appear to be managed internally and how did it get up to hundreds of students per cohort?

  • At the same time, the two large 2U programs have the highest student debt levels. Is this a feature of the disciplines involved (social work and nursing), the usage of an OPM, both, or some other reason? The debt levels are roughly 15 – 16% higher than the third placed program (in terms of median debt levels).

It might be interesting to compare data across multiple OPMs or across different disciplines to get further insights. For now, this case study seems to provide a lot of insight into online education and OPMs and general student debt levels for graduate programs.

Update 6/10: See in-line notes clarifying how the College Scorecard defines Count. Also added emphasis that online and f2f programs are aggregated.

1 Disclosure: 2U is a past client of MindWires and is a sponsoring participant of Michael’s Empirical Educator Project.