It's been a big week for online program managers (OPMs). One of the biggest players in the market, 2U, announced a move toward creating more transparency in the sector. It also launched a deferred-tuition program. And a watchdog group put out a comprehensive report shedding important light on the often-elusive terms of such partnerships with universities.
To cap off the week, leaders in the space hashed it out, conference-panel-style, in front of a modest audience at BMO Capital Markets' 19th annual Back to School Conference in New York.
Here's a top-line look at where panelists stood on the state of OPM-university relationships and the future of online education.
Money matters. Universities are increasingly interested in public-private partnerships, but they have limits on what they'll outsource. Where OPM relationships are concerned, "one of the things they are outsourcing is access to capital," said Nuruddin Virani, senior vice president of strategy and new ventures at advisory firm EAB.
Not all partnerships are the same. Institutions have built out parts of their online experience, meaning potential partners need to be able to work within that framework, panelists said. OPM relationships "are all different, and you have to have a model and a structure to be able to adapt to that difference," said Steve Fireng, global CEO at Keypath Education, an OPM.
Internal silos are barriers. OPM partnerships benefit from creating economies of scale within an institution.
To outsource back-office functions across a university's often disparate departments and colleges, "more centralization and standardization at the institutional level" is necessary, Virani said. Some schools are asking their partners for a "more seamless end-to-end solution," but that will be slow "given the federated nature of these types of schools," said Sumit Nijhawan, president and CEO of Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
The perennial question persists. That is, whether institutions are better served by sharing a cut of tuition revenue with an OPM in exchange for more support up front, or by working with a mix of partners on smaller pieces of an online program.
John Katzman, founder and CEO of Noodle Partners, is a noted critic of the former approach and expects institutions will push toward the latter. But Fireng, whose company is in a strategic partnership with 2U — which Katzman co-founded and that uses revenue-shares — disagreed. Lots of schools still like the traditional model, he said. "We have to trust the schools and know what they want based on their own financial characteristics and mission."
While the revenue-share approach is generally regarded as the best way to get started quickly, Nijhawan said, "a lot of (schools) are asking for alternatives" and about how to outsource piecemeal.
Is the degree dead? Colleges and universities have used certificates to drum up support for existing degrees and to test the market for more credentials in a topic area, a trend that has shaped their strategy online. The role of nondegree programs is still being ironed out, however.
Fireng argued certificates have value to students when they can be rolled into a degree. However, employers' acceptance of nonindustry certificates "has been pretty tepid," Katzman said. That's critical to their uptake. The value of certifications that come directly from industry groups is more apparent.
"There's got to be currency around these certifications and employers need to recognize the validity of them," EAB's Virani said.