Dear Colleges: Take Control of Your Online Courses - New Report by The Century Foundation

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Dear Colleges: Take Control of Your Online Courses - New Report by The Century Foundation

As public and nonprofit colleges have sought to expand their online course offerings, a major industry has developed to help them with that task. These private, for-profit developers—including divisions of big publishers, like Wiley and Pearson, and firms like 2U, Academic Partnerships, and Bisk—are known as online program managers (OPMs). They operate on a contract basis, and on terms that endow them with enormous, and, at times, comprehensive control over the services offered in the contracting college’s name. There are downsides to handing over responsibilities to external, for-profit operators—downsides that make the convenience schools receive in return seem a bad bargain indeed.

Two years ago, The Century Foundation did a major study of partnerships between private OPMs and public universities, drawing on contracts from every state in the country.1 We learned that these partnerships are as bad as many had suspected, if not worse: in return for some superficial convenience, public universities in every corner of the United States had been putting their for-profit contractors in the driver’s seat in nearly every respect, including financial considerations. More often than not, more than half of the programs’ tuition revenue goes straight to the contractors.

This year, TCF followed up on that research, looking at an entirely new tranche of OPM–university contracts, and our findings reflect those trends from 2017, deepening this already deeply unsettling picture. In this report, we share those findings, but we don’t stop there: through a typology of the actors to be wary of and an outline of five contracting red flags to avoid, we also provide schools with the know-how they need to start fighting back, and what to do instead. Along the way, we interweave examples from this year’s contract analysis, to demonstrate how theory can be put into practice to allow for safer contracting.

If schools act quickly and effectively, they can make a lot of progress in curtailing this crisis, protecting their students and themselves in the process. Our hope is that this action-focused report will assist schools and those who care about them to jumpstart a paradigm shift in how online education in the United States is done...

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