OPMs in the news


Looks like it’s OPM Week. I wish I knew in advance; I’d have dressed more appropriately.

Kevin Carey, the vice president for education policy and knowledge management at New America and director of the Education Policy program there, got us started with a longform piece in Huffington Post. Carey’s piece does a lot of work. We know from Carey’s recent book that he believes technology affords institutions of higher education a way to deliver instruction for less money (and at least equal quality) than traditional, face-to-face instruction.

His main thesis in the HuffPost piece seems to be that many institutions of higher education have outsourced much of the program development and design to “secretive” for-profit online program management (OPM) companies, and, as a result of the business plans and arrangements with those companies, the cost of distance education programs is not any better for students. In some cases, cost is higher. This, Carey argues, is part of the “creeping capitalist takeover of higher education.”

This post is less my commentary on the piece than an effort to curate some of the conversation around Carey’s article. This is in part a service for my readers (both of them!), but mostly my attempt to round up as much as I can for myself for future reference. For now, I will only add that I think Carey’s piece gets a lot right, but also misses some key points. For me, the real value of the piece is the critical policy historiography of the OPM space. He does a great job of demonstrating who the early players and stakeholders were and how federal regulatory policy has contributed to the current state of affairs.

However, I wish Carey would have offered some perspective on the scale of the enterprise he writes about. The number (and percentage) of distance education courses and programs that are offered by public institutions of higher education in partnership with a for-profit is growing, but the relative size of those kinds of courses and programs is unknown. I am confident, though, that the number is much smaller than the number of online programs built entirely with the internal capacity of public institutions and offered to in-state students at in-state tuition.

I also wish Carey would have referenced an important report from The Century Foundation called “The Private Side of Public Education.” For that report, The Century Foundation reviewed over 100 agreements between public institutions and for-profit OPMs. Ultimately, they conclude that:

More so than other contracting arrangements, OPMs represent the outsourcing of the core educational mission of public institutions of higher education, threatening the consumer-minded focus that results from the public control of schools.

Carey is, I believe, more focused on the financial side of the story, so I can see why this is not part of his article. Others with expertise in higher education policy have also weighed in on Carey’s piece. Dr. Kevin McClure, from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, offered some thoughts on the experience of an online program at his institution that is offered in partnership with an OPM. The important point McClure makes is around staffing and support services when these things scale up quickly. To scale up quickly necessarily means hiring lots of adjuncts and puts all kinds of stress on existing support offices. (NOTE: if you click on the date/time stamp of the tweet below, you’ll see the full thread)

Dr. Brendan Cantwell from Michigan State University then weighs in with a thread of his own. I think Cantwell’s best point is that “OPMs want a piece of the action not because higher education has failed – as #EdTech and other reformers claim – but because it is a success. Ultimately, students and families show faith in higher education by participating.”

Cantwell is at Michigan State, which happens to be the setting for today’s new article about OPMs (I said it was OPM Week!). Lindsay McKenzie of Inside Higher Education writes about “Going Outside to Grow” and highlights MSU’s master of science in criminal justice program. According to McKenzie:

For 20 years, the university managed the program itself, building its enrollment to a modest 200 or so students per year while generating revenue that more than covered its expenses. But when enrollment started to plateau around 2016, leaders at MSU sought an online program management company to help them bring in new students.

I think the article does a good job of expressing the existential angst that higher education administrators are facing. Gerald Rhead, director of academic entrepreneurship at MSU, is quoted as saying that the university is “not trying to blow the doors off” its existing programs. “…We want the growth to be incremental — we don’t want it to be overwhelming.”

This is a developing space, ripe for good research and policy analysis, and I hope to be part of that community of inquiry. If you are interested in working with me on some research, hit me up! I also recommend following the work of Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein from Mindwires; they’ve been tracking this space for a long time.

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