Thoughts on the 2U Transparency Report

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Last week, 2U released its first Transparency Report. If you are interested in the online program management (OPM) world and the growing number of non-profit/for-profit postsecondary partnerships, then I highly recommend you invest some time to read through the report. To whet your appetite, I pulled out the key highlights that caught my eye in this piece.

After letting the report marinate in my brain for a couple of days, here are some thoughts on what 2U has produced:

Kudos:

2U should be congratulated for producing this report. While the report leaves me with more questions than answers (see below), I think that this 2U Transparency report is an important step in the right direction. It is nice to see these data on 2U’s work with schools aggregated and synthesized. My sense is that much of the information in the Transparency Report was available from other 2U filings and reports (as 2U is a public company), but 2U should be recognized for bringing it all together in one place. The sheer size of 2U’s operations is impressive. Working with 70 non-profit universities and having over 150,000 students complete 2U-powered degree programs means that 2U is operating at a scale worth paying attention to.

The report mirrors, I think, what I know about the people who lead and work for 2U. To a person, everyone I’ve interacted with at 2U is mission-driven to help both learners and universities. The idea that anyone working at 2U is motivated first to earn a buck off of schools or students is simply wrong. The folks at 2U very much believe that they can help schools create quality online programs, assist learners in finding an online program that truly makes sense for them, and make enough money to get fair returns and compensation. I think that 2U is trying to do the right thing by being as transparent with their operations as they believe they can be, given a competitive OPM environment and the constraints imposed by needing to keep good relations with both schools and the investment community.

What’s Missing:

It would be unfair to compare this 2U report with a piece of academic research. 2U has produced a worthwhile corporate report. Expecting 2U to do scholarly, critical, and independent research on its business and industry is a fantasy. However, this reality does not make the absence of scholarly, critical, and independent research on 2U and the OPM industry any more acceptable.

The research that we need to find a way to do on the growth of the OPM industry would be a: hypothesis-based, b: data-driven, and c: comparative/case-controlled. We would start by asking stating falsifiable hypotheses around the benefits/costs to both schools and students and then testing those hypotheses with both institutional and learner outcomes data. Crucially, we would develop a methodology that enables us to pair (or twin) similar schools and similar students who are included in the OPM group (treatment group) with those running or enrolled in non-partner online programs (control group).

The challenge in all this will be getting the data. We need financial, workforce, and enrollment data from schools working with OPMs and schools that have started online programs without OPM partners. Similarly, we need financial and outcome data from students in OPM-powered online programs and those participating in programs where schools did not partner with an OPM.

Next Steps:

While the 2U Transparency Report certainly helps us fill out our understanding of the OPM industry in general, and 2U in particular, it does allow us to answer the questions about OPMs that we most want to know. Are these for-profit/non-profit partnerships good for schools, and are they useful for students? Should a university consider working with an OPM for online degree programs, for non-degree online programs, or both? If a school is going to work with an OPM, what are the best practices and guidelines for managing this relationship? How should a university evaluate the options of either investing in internal capacities and people for creating new online programs, partnering with a for-profit online learning enabler, or taking a mixed approach? And what, if any, should be the role of regional accreditors and the Education Department in regulating the growing number of for-profit/non-profit partnerships in the online learning space?

Many people in and around higher ed think they have the answers to all of these questions. They might – but I don’t think any of us can claim to be making data-driven decisions. We have our biases, and we have our beliefs. What we don’t have is evidence.

Getting these data is going to be incredibly difficult. We have no existing OPM data clearinghouse, an entity that can collect and anonymize data. We don’t have an infrastructure that either incentivizes (or requires) both companies and schools to contribute data. We don’t have a system that would enable independent researchers the time and resources necessary to research non-profit/for-profit partnerships. And we don’t have a platform or established space where that research can be presented, peer-reviewed, and debated.

The best thing a Biden ED could do around OPMs would be to catalyze this sort of research. The Education Department can convene the various players to discuss how an infrastructure to conduct academic research on non-profit/for-profit partnerships in online education might get built. The players must include universities, OPM companies, professional associations, accreditors, government, researchers, and foundations. I am highly confident that Gates or Lumina or another foundation would support this sort of research. I think that companies in adjacent spaces (Google, Microsoft, etc.) might also provide support for this research and be partners in setting up a data clearinghouse.

2U has taken the first step in releasing this Transparency Report. If 2U believes that it provides significant benefits to universities and students (and I think that it does), then it will contribute the effort to build on this report to create the conditions for genuinely independent academic research on the OPM industry. Having 2U’s leadership step up with a commitment to work within a consortium of companies, schools, organizations, and researchers to create this OPM infrastructure would open the door for other OPM companies to make similar commitments.



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