UMass Online Does Something With Someone

Last week we saw a classic announcement-without-details from UMass Online (UMOL), the centralized online education unit of the UMass system, and Brandman University, the working-adult school created by Chapman University. As described in the Boston Globe:

The University of Massachusetts will partner with a California university to launch a national online college for adult learners.

UMass announced Tuesday that it will work with Brandman University, a private, nonprofit institution, to expand the state public university system’s online presence.

The announcement – in press releases or media coverage – did not describe the form of the partnership nor the financial terms. Just partner as the basis of the news.

Jan Brady: "Partner, Partner, Partner"

This news has been in the making for over a year, after the March 4, 2019 announcement from the University of Massachusetts that they planned “the creation of a new online college focused solely on adult learners”. That announcement coincided with a Request for Information (RFI) by UMass Online seeking Online Program Management (OPM) services to help establish this new college. RFIs typically collect enough information for the issuing organization to release a Request for Proposal (RFP) with sufficient details to allow an evaluation of the best proposal. In this case, there was no RFP, just silence for a year. Well, public silence at least, as the announcements imply plenty of back-room discussions.

So what is the form of this new partnership? Given the importance of this move for online education in general and for the OPM market, it is probably worth some research and effort to fill in the blanks.


Last March in System President Marty Meehan’s State of the University, he set up the need for a new online college based on the “looming demographic crisis” best described by Nathan Grawe.

And what’s particularly frustrating is that more than 20 percent – approximately 1 million adults in Massachusetts – have some college credit but no bachelor’s degree.

A concerted and highly targeted effort to make a UMass education available to these adult learners is the answer to a number of issues:

– Addressing the workforce skills gap

– Meeting employer demand

– Improving economic mobility for Massachusetts residents

– And ensuring that UMass continues to thrive for generations to come.

Over the next several months, I will be meeting with senior leadership and faculty on each of our campuses to outline a plan for the creation of a new online college focused solely on adult learners.

This argument is very similar to the one made by former California Governor Jerry Brown to create Calbright College, the fully-online community college created with $100m of initial funds and a $20m annual budget.

According to the RFI released two weeks prior to the State of the University speech:

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees has set a goal to generate $300 M in incremental revenue through the delivery of online programs over the next five years. UMOL is considering a number of options to achieve this goal by offering a comprehensive, student-centered, enterprise model for online learning delivery that will aggressively increase access to affordable high quality post-secondary education to Massachusetts residents and beyond. The purpose of this RFI is to acquire general product and cost information so that we are able to develop more detailed specifications for a subsequent RFP.

Subsequently, per the Boston Globe:

UMass officials contacted 100 institutions over the past year to find the best partner and model for the online venture, Kilburn said.

There never was an RFP, nor was there any public discussion with the UMass Board of Trustees on this new venture. If the board discussed the results of the RFI or the deal with Brandman, they did not include it in any meeting agenda or minutes.

The RFI itself was a fairly standard description of OPM services – market research, marketing, recruiting and enrollment management, technology platform, student support, course and curriculum design, and interestingly “curriculum licensing”. This last element was further described in an RFI Q&A document:

UMass would like the opportunity to license courses and programs in order to facilitate a rapid growth strategy.

In another answer:

The objective is to launch an entirely new set of online programs independent from the campus structures that include a comprehensive degree completion offering as well as targeted advanced and professional degrees. In some cases, select campus programs may be brought into the overall offering.

Thus we have the setup for the new UMOL-managed college to be independent from the system universities, generate $300m in revenue within five years, targeting working adults. They were looking to outsource OPM services as well as some or much of the actual curriculum.

As for Brandman University, they were looking for change, as noted in Chapman University’s announcement.

“Brandman is destined for national prominence as a leader in education for working adults. Chapman has taken it as far as we can on our own and it’s time for Brandman to grow its reach.” Chapman University [President] Daniele C. Struppa said. “When the opportunity to partner with a world-class institution like the University of Massachusetts became a possibility over a year ago, I saw it as an ideal fit to take Brandman to the next level.”


Per the Boston Globe, there is not any agreement yet, despite the talks over the past year.

UMass and Brandman must still work out the financial details of their partnership, but a deal should be in place by year’s end, with classes beginning early next year, said Don Kilburn, the head of UMassOnline.

Even without financial details, UMOL is convinced there is no financial risk involved. Per MassLive:

The arrangement will strengthen UMass Online’s technology platform and support services, according to the university. Kilburn said the partnership does not carry a cost for UMass or the state.

Kilburn has been around this business for years and was CEO at Pearson Learning Solutions when Pearson acquired Embanet, the OPM provider, in 2012. He knows you don’t get something for nothing, and I assume this statement implies that the financial deal will be some form of tuition revenue-sharing, where an OPM vendor typically funds the up-front cost of the program and makes its profit years later.

If UMOL meets its objectives stated in the RFI, this deal would probably be worth more than $150m in OPM fees, per year, just based on typical revenue sharing arrangements.

It is interesting, however, that UMOL selected Brandman as its partner, without figuring out the financial details first. That approach doesn’t make for much of a competitive analysis nor solid topic for discussions with the board of trustees.

Why Announce A Pre-Deal?

This leads to the question of why make this announcement now? Why not wait until you have an actual deal in hand? I suspect the answer comes from this June 10th announcement: [emphasis added]

Today, the University of Massachusetts announced a strategic alliance between UMass Online and Mass General Brigham (formerly Partners HealthCare) to develop a certificate and degree completion pathway for healthcare professionals in support of the economic recovery in a critical area of need within the state.

“Simply put, there is no partnership more powerful than one between the Commonwealth’s largest employer and its public university,” UMass President Marty Meehan said. “Through this initiative, we are expanding our ability to deliver on our mission of educating Massachusetts citizens and supporting our business community in the most innovative way possible.”

Mass General Brigham, the largest private employer in Massachusetts, has also selected UMass Online as a partner to provide some if its 78,000 employees the opportunity to earn a Bachelor’s in Business Administration completely online as part of Mass General Brigham’s Workforce Development programming. The partnership will offer expanded access to higher education through innovative, online, competency-based academic courses, strong student support, and enhanced tuition assistance.

UMOL made this agreement with Mass General Brigham and needed to have something to back up their plans on the degree completion pathway. Note that degrees require accreditation, and UMOL is not accredited. To act fast and deliver degrees, guess what – you need a pre-existing institution and not just an OPM.

Does UMOL have to acquire Brandman for this to work? Technically, no, as they could simply send students to Brandman. But this would go against the basis of the whole initiative. Going back to the March announcement by Marty Meehan:

Out-of-state institutions without our same reputation for academic excellence are enrolling adult learners in Massachusetts in the types of programs we seek to offer.

Southern New Hampshire University enrolls an estimated 15,000 Massachusetts residents.

That is despite the fact that more than 50 percent of Massachusetts adult learners enrolled in fully online programs say they would have enrolled in a similar UMass program if it were offered.

Shuffling students to out-of-state Brandman instead of something within the University of Massachusetts is what UMOL wanted to avoid.

What is more likely (or more justifiable) would be a Purdue Global style deal, which was created from Purdue University’s acquisition of Kaplan University for $1, turning Kaplan Higher Education into an OPM provider. I covered the recent financials showing that Purdue Global lost $43m in its first full year of operations, showing the difficultly to backup claims of no financial risk.

Brandman University and Calbright College Connection

The focus on competency-based education (CBE) in the Mass General Brigham announcement also helps explain the Brandman side of this partnership. That university created its first CBE program in partnership with Flat World, as I described in e-Literate in early 2015. Flat World became Sage Learning, which in turn became Strut Learning, which is the courseware provider for Calbright College and its CBE-driven working adult focus. I described the hot mess of Calbright College course design in this recent post. You can see the same platform design from this 2016 Brandman CBE presentation, although it looks like Brandman is more sophisticated than Calbright in the course design.

California chose to defer accreditation and degrees, and thus is using Strut Learning as a contractor without any acquisition of a school for accreditation purposes. Kudos to my state for at least acknowledging the costs upfront and not buying out-of-state students, unlike Purdue and potentially UMass.

Note that Brandman University already offers a CBE-based Bachelor’s of Business Administration, which is the core of the Mass General Brigham plans.

What UMOL has in Brandman is an accredited school ready to change ownership willingly, with pre-existing CBE platform and even curriculum for the initial program ready for licensing (albeit with updates and modifications, I assume). And Brandman is growing at a healthy rate for fully online students – faster than any UMass campus, with more than 11,000 pre-existing students (per IPEDS for the most recent 2018 data).

Terribly Extended Press Release Rewrite

This, I believe, is what the UMass Online / Brandman University partnership probably means. A state-demanded rapid online education growth initiative independent of the system universities, leveraging OPM services and likely a school acquisition, to deliver CBE curriculum for working adults, with a workforce alliance deal forcing an early announcement before details are finalized.

Obviously there is guesswork involved here, and I will update and correct when and if new information emerges.