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The Century Foundation on Online Education and OPMs: Position paper masquerading as a study

The Century Foundation (TCF), a public policy advocacy organization, released a new ‘study’ today about online education and the usage of for-profit service providers such as Online Program Management (OPM) companies. “Dear Colleges: Take Control of Your Online Courses” follows up from the 2017 report loosely based on public records requests for contracts from public colleges and universities. Its intent is clear from the title, as it is hardly a study but more of a position paper against the OPM market in general and tuition revenue-sharing agreements in particular.

As public and nonprofit colleges have sought to expand their online course offerings, a major industry has developed to help them with that task. These private, for-profit developers—including divisions of big publishers, like Wiley and Pearson, and firms like 2U, Academic Partnerships, and Bisk—are known as online program managers (OPMs). They operate on a contract basis, and on terms that endow them with enormous, and, at times, comprehensive control over the services offered in the contracting college’s name. There are downsides to handing over responsibilities to external, for-profit operators—downsides that make the convenience schools receive in return seem a bad bargain indeed.

The Positives

It is valuable that TCF did the legwork to obtain and share 79 new contracts between providers and public institutions, and you can follow links in the report to see a broad range of contracts. OPM, Online Program Enablement (OPE), 1LMS, courseware, MOOCs, Continuing Education or Professional Development, and general EdTech – they have them all.

It is also valuable to see TCF’s positions laid out in five warnings to colleges and universities.

1. Don’t Buy Bundled Services

2. Don’t Bypass Your Own Faculty

3. Don’t Sign Lengthy, Unbreakable Contracts

4. Don’t “Share” Your Tuition Revenue

5. Don’t Facilitate Aggressive Recruiting

While items 1, 3, and 4 really just reword the title argument against the revenue-sharing OPM model, items 2 and 5 are worth reading. From item 5:

On average, the universities from whom we’ve acquired contracts share half of their tuition dollars with the partnering OPM, and when that OPM is a for-profit company, as most are, and is also tasked with recruiting, it is incentivized to get as many enrollments as possible. This scenario leads to the same predatory and aggressive recruiting tactics long used by for-profit colleges, but this time under the very different guise of a nonprofit or public university.25

The Negatives

It’s well and good for an advocacy organization to take a position, but for TCF to describe this report as a study is disingenuous. I’m fairly confident that the main points were written ahead of time and are consistent with plenty of TCF advocacy efforts. The data analysis is just there to backup their main arguments and to lend weight to the report and make it feel like an actual study. TCF’s Bob Shireman helped draft the California bills I described a few days ago, where one goal of the bills were to cripple revenue-sharing agreements. He has been a frequent critic of bundled OPM services, long-term contracts, and revenue-sharing. We get it. 2

If you look at the contracts in the new batch of records released by the report, they are all over the map as described above and often are not directly related to online programs. The LMS category may be a necessary part of the infrastructure for online programs, but at most schools the larger mission is to support traditional face-to-face offerings. The same is true with courseware offerings. And several of the Continuing Education contracts listed have strong face-to-face components. It would have been far better to keep this report focused on the subject – OPMs, OPEs, and perhaps MOOCs and CE / PD companies. Those are the ones that could be argued are relevant to controlling a school’s online courses.

Furthermore, there is a misunderstanding of traditional per-student fixed fees that have long been used by courseware companies, many EdTech companies, and LMS companies (although they tend to use enrollment bands). Tuition revenue-sharing is different, basing itself directly on the revenue brought in by the school with a percentage basis going to the provider.

The TCF report has Blackboard’s contract with Eastern Kentucky University listed as revenue-sharing, but the contract is a standard LMS model. Fixed fees per year based on estimated enrollment bands. The TCF also has courseware contracts with Cengage, MindEdge, Red Shelf, and The College Network listed as revenue-sharing when they are standard courseware versions – fixed fees per student. Two OPE contracts – Smart Sparrow and 352 – are likewise fixed fee per student and not true revenue-sharing. I suspect there are even more cases of false revenue-sharing positives, but I have only have had time for spot checking on this point.

To their credit, the report attempts to focus on those product categories tied to online offerings.

As of August 2019, we received seventy-nine contracts, and of these, forty-one are directly relevant to the management of online courses. These forty-one do not include contracts that only address access to software like learning management systems. Of the relevant contracts, over half (53 percent) entitle the provider to a share of the school’s tuition.

There are two problems here.

  • One is that TCF does not list in their summary spreadsheet which contracts they consider “directly relevant to the management of online courses”. By my hand-coding, I get 14 OPMs, 10 OPEs, 2 MOOCs (and these are not the more-recent MOOC-as-OPM version), and 17 CE / PD, for a total of 43. I’m guessing that my list is fairly close, but who knows.

  • More importantly, these data points are mostly arbitrary, depending on which schools they asked and how successful they were in obtaining public records. Yes, they claim to have targeted schools with large online enrollments, but the data are mixed up between face-to-face and online programs, degree-based and non-degree based programs and courses, and contract years from 2002 to 2019. As a public listing this approach is fine. But to make constant percentage-based claims (53% of contracts, 68% of contracts, etc) implies statistical relevance and is misleading.

There is also a misreading of other reporting, particularly with the story of USC and its School of Social Work. The TCF report states:

Since USC had given over so much control to 2U, it had little control over how the program recruited, or who it enrolled: as revealed by the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, the online social work program admitted students that it was not prepared to provide with a quality education, charging them more than $100,000 for their degree in the process. All the while, USC reportedly lost money on the program, because so much of the tuition went to 2U.

This story is problematic for USC, but the argument made by TCF that the loss of money was “because so much of the tuition went to 2U” is not supported by the source LA Times article.

The university, which has contracted with the company through 2030, said the factors that led to the school’s budget crunch were “much broader” than its relationship with 2U.

“Generally, this partner relationship has been positive,” the university said in a statement. [snip]

There is much to the USC story that deserves further scrutiny, but this claim by TCF is inaccurate or at least unsupported.

Online education and OPM relationships should have greater accountability and transparency, and it is good that TCF has done the legwork to bring contracts into the public view. But it is a mistake to treat this report as anything other than a position paper from an advocacy organization, and a rather poor one at that.

1 OPM is for bundled service providers including marketing and enrollment services, course and curriculum design, student support, and tech / data infrastructure. OPE is a broader category of enablers that may do a subset of those jobs, often unbundled, but are still directly helping a school develop an online program.

2 To be clear, I have no problem with his work in this area. I do have a problem when his advocacy leads to harm for the very students the bills are meant to protect and when TCF presents its positions as a study.