Dear Commons Community,
The American Educator has an article in its current issue entitled,“Who Controls Online Courses? How For-Profit Companies Are Harming Public Higher Education” by Stephanie Hall. It takes a look at the state of private education companies, referred to as online program managers (OPMs), that have proliferated in the past decade. I have blogged about OPMs before but cautions in this article are worth repeating. See (https://apicciano.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2021/11/09/erik-gilbert-op-ed-beware-predatory-opm-companies/ and https://apicciano.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2022/01/19/senate-democrats-elizabeth-warren-of-massachusetts-sherrod-brown-of-ohio-and-tina-smith-of-minnesota-probing-online-program-management-opm-companies/
OPMs offer services from student recruitment, registration, video production, instructional design, etc. for those colleges looking to become more involved with online academic programs. Hall cautions that in entering into agreements, some colleges have essentially outsourced and privatized their academic programs. Driven by financial difficulties, these colleges have turned to OPMs to jumpstart what they hope will be a revenue stream. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and the fine print in contracts generally favors the OPM.
Her conclusion (see below) includes nine questions that any administrator or faculty member should consider before entering into an OPM contract.
While there is no such thing as an ideal outsourcing agreement, the better among them respect the rights of faculty and students, maintain faculty control over academic governance, protect students from predatory recruiting, and keep the public institution intact by maintaining a safe distance between the college or university and the contractor.
The Century Foundation has continued to acquire and analyze agreements between public colleges and universities and their OPMs. This became all the more important when the COVID-19 pandemic sent entire campuses into virtual classrooms. Additional analysis has made it clear that there are even more questions faculty should consider as they advocate for better arrangements when outsourcing cannot be avoided.
- What are the short- and medium-term plans for using the services of the OPM? Faculty, through their governance structures, should reject arrangements with contract terms that go beyond the timeframe that represents one cohort of students.
- What are the enrollment goals behind the arrangement and whose goals are they? How many colleges, departments, and programs will be implicated in the arrangement? What is the justification for hiring an OPM for the program(s) of interest? Faculty should require a holistic analysis of the local and beyond-local demand for the programs from sources other than enrollment data. Likewise, faculty should require a full-scale analysis of the institution’s existing internal capabilities and a plan for building internal capacity if needed.
- What are the payment terms? Faculty should require evidence of revenue and expenditure modeling. If tuition sharing has been deemed necessary, it should be for a very limited time, the amount shared with the contractor should taper over time, and the contract should shift to fee-for-service terms within as short a timeframe as possible.
- How quickly and with what resources will the new programs launch? Do the plan and timeline match the process that would be used for creating and offering new on-campus programs?
- How many student start dates will be offered per year and why? Outsourced online programs have taken lessons from the for-profit college playbook, and some OPMs require their partners to offer multiple start dates per semester. To the prospective student, this is billed as a convenient feature that lessens the wait time between enrollment and the first day of class. However, there can be downsides to students, faculty, and the learning process when it comes to compressed semesters and quickly succeeding start dates. For the OPM, on the other hand, compressed schedules represent the ability to take in more cohorts (and revenue) per year and to move students through tuition cycles faster. Faculty groups should determine if they have a position on the number of start dates offered by their institution.
- What is the source of instructional labor for the new programs? Specifically, is the college or university remaining in control of instructor recruitment, onboarding, and training? Will the programs be staffed in a way that matches on-campus program staffing? At what benefit or expense? One strategy to erode faculty control over these matters is for online divisions to use completely different sources of labor, including by recruiting instructors who live in states other than that of the main campus. Faculty groups should require full transparency of the staffing plan for proposed programs.
- Are the outsourced programs replicas of programs that exist on campus already? Will the outsourced programs have parity with programs already offered on campus? Will instructors and students taking part in the online programs have access to the same resources as on-campus students? What is the plan for ensuring the new programs are as worthwhile to students as on-campus programs? These questions are important for faculty groups trying to determine whether the administration is creating access to an existing and worthwhile product or simply creating a potentially predatory, second-tier online campus with no meaningful connection to the institution.
- Will the college or university remain in control over marketing strategy and content? The most egregious outsourcing agreements assume the OPM has control over which materials and messages are used in advertisements. For example, a contract between Southeastern Oklahoma State University and Academic Partnerships assumes the university has approved marketing materials so long as the OPM attempts to share them.41 Instead, the agreement should have been written to give clear control to the university, especially since the university suffers the consequences for advertising taken out in its name. In general, if the contractor is responsible for creating and placing ad content, a defined process for the college’s or university’s active review and approval should be included.
- Student recruitment should be scrutinized. When services are paid on a tuition-sharing or commission basis, the inclusion of student recruiting is especially dangerous. Regardless of the payment terms, faculty should critically analyze the purpose of recruiting to fill virtual classrooms. If the documented demand for degrees, certificates, and other programs is real, could it be that online students would be just as likely to find their way to a physical campus as an online campus? Organic demand does not need to be drummed up. The reasons an online program might advertise go beyond organic demand. It could be that a college or university is specifically looking for students who do not live near the campus. This could be a losing game, since recent data indicate that 82 percent of online-only students who are enrolled in public colleges and universities live in the same state as their institution.42 Alternatively, if colleges and universities hope to pull students who might attend a for-profit college, faculty should ask the decision makers how their institution’s online degree offers something different to students who would otherwise enroll in a national for-profit. If the answer is that students get degrees bearing the public institution’s name, then the institution is complicit in renting out its own brand. Faculty groups from public and nonprofit colleges and universities should work to address this problem at its root by curbing spending on advertising and recruiting by the for-profit sector.
Unfortunately, faculty and students can exist on a campus without knowing they have tens of thousands of peers in the virtual space. Online students—and especially prospective online students—are invisible and easy to overlook, making them a prime target for profiteers who operate under the guise of providing a public service. This invisibility increases the sense that the public is truly on the losing end of so-called public-private partnerships in online higher education.
Until the public is reaffirmed as part of public-private partnerships, prospective students should assume there are private actors with incentives that run counter to the purpose of public higher education. Reclaiming the public aspect, even in contexts where outsourcing has been normalized, is essential to meeting public institutions’ democratic mission of education for the common good.