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Fact vs. Fiction: A Critique of the Recent “Report” from The Century Foundation

Written by David Sutphen on Sep 19, 2019

Related content: Leadership

As a kid, I always aspired to be a civil rights lawyer. Fortunately, I was able to pursue that dream early in my career. Before, during, and immediately after law school, I had the honor of working at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and for the social justice icon Bryan Stevenson. But perhaps the greatest privilege of my early professional life was serving nearly four years as Judiciary Committee General Counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, where I handled civil rights issues. During that time, I worked closely every day with progressive leaders and social justice allies in the battle for equity and equality. It was both exciting and challenging, and I learned a ton about our political process, advocacy, and what it means to fight the good fight.

One of the most profound lessons I took away from my time as a Kennedy staffer was that everyone who comes to see you is an advocate and has an agenda. And to do your job effectively, you need to recognize and understand that agenda. I also learned that the most influential and effective advocates had four things in common:

  1. They grounded their arguments in fact and presented them fairly and clearly while recognizing the limits of their expertise;
  2. They were always willing to have an honest dialogue about the weaknesses in their own arguments as well as the strengths of their opponent's position;
  3. They were forthcoming about who was funding and supporting their advocacy; and
  4. They ultimately cared more about making sound public policy than furthering an ideological agenda.

After all, facts matter, there are always two sides to an argument, everyone needs financial backing to support their work, and lawmaking involves compromise.

Although I left the Hill years ago and now work at 2U, Inc., when I apply the lessons I learned back then to the latest “report” by The Century Foundation (TCF) titled: “Dear Colleges: Take Control of Your Online Courses,” I can’t help but question its merits. And I'm not alone. As Phil Hill, a respected edtech market analyst and independent consultant, noted in a recent blog post about the “report”: "it is a mistake to treat this report as anything other than a position paper from an advocacy organization, and a rather poor one at that."

So, let’s take a walk through the findings of the TCF “report” section by section to separate fiction from fact. It's worth noting upfront that, according to a recent HolonIQ report, over 500 universities are now working with OPM/OPX providers to help power 4,900 programs–yet that perspective and voice is conspicuously absent from TCF’s “report.”

"Don’t Buy Bundled Services”

Fiction: “Since USC has given over so much control over to 2U, it had little control over how the program recruited, or who it enrolled.” (Excerpt from TCF Report)

Fact: Under 2U’s graduate degree program contracts, our university partners maintain control over accreditation, tuition pricing, curriculum, admissions criteria, and admissions decisions, as well as faculty governance and hiring.

"[USC], which has contracted with the company through 2030, said the factors that led to the school’s budget crunch were ‘much broader’ than its relationship with 2U...'Generally, this partner relationship has been positive,' the university said in a statement." (The Los Angeles Times)

“Recent articles in the Huffpost and Los Angeles Times feature our online partner, 2U, Inc., and their partner schools, including the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Both articles imply the implementation of a lower admission standard to boost revenue for online degree programs through 2U. This is simply not accurate for our partnership with 2U. Application criteria are the same across MSW programs, whether online or on-campus, and admission decisions are made solely by GSSW.” (Amanda Moore McBride, PhD, Morris Endowed Dean and Professor, Graduate School of Social Work, University of Denver)

"Don’t Bypass Your Own Faculty”

Fiction: OPM contracts “wrest most educational control from professors and instructors who have been hired to teach subjects.” (Excerpt from TCF Report)

Fact: 2U's OPM model and contracts empower professors and instructors.

“Every course...has been refreshed or completely redeveloped since the program launch in 2014. The process for review and iteration of the asynchronous content involves the course lead who initially developed the courses, instructors who lead the weekly sessions, the academic director, and course development staff at our program partner, 2U. Most courses are updated at least once per year with minor changes to keep up both with the fast pace of the field and the wishes of our faculty to keep improving their courses.” (Excerpt from the “Graduate Council Four-Year Review of the Masters of Information and Data Science (MIDS) 2018 UC Berkeley School of Information”)

"Don’t Sign Lengthy, Unbreakable Contracts”

Fiction: “If the goal is to allow universities to be innovative, adaptive, and responsive, then short-term contracts are ideal.” (Excerpt from TCF Report)

Fact: 2U's shared success model and contracts align our interests, long-term, with partners and students, incentivizing us to continue investing to drive quality, innovation, and strong outcomes.

“2U has continued to assist us in being innovative. For example, for the clinical year, we developed FLICKS (Focused Lectures in Clinical Knowledge). This allows us to standardize the learning experience for the clinical students no matter where they do their rotations. I am even presenting on this idea at the PA educators conference.” (Jim Van Rhee, Program Director, Yale Physician Assistant Online Program)

"The other options for high-quality, online education are not attractive financially or in quality because they seriously underestimate the amount of time, investment, and sophistication required for a top institution to pull off the quality of programs we've historically done in person in the past." (Kent Syverud, Chancellor and President, Syracuse University)

"Don’t 'Share' Your Tuition Revenue”

Fiction: “Exposed to the light of public scrutiny, it simply does not sit well with people that a public or nonprofit would be so cavalier with students’ tuition that they turn over half or more of it to an outside for-profit company.” (Excerpt from TCF Report)

Fact: 2U's partners believe strongly in the quality and value of our partnerships.

“Social work at Baylor has been dabbling online for over a decade; and then, 2U came in as a partner with such significant expertise and experience that we are now so excited about our online MSW and all the work that has gone into it. From course strategy to video production, and from financial planning to marketing, from recruitment and student success to faculty success, we are proud of what we are offering to our students and we would not be doing any of it without 2U walking alongside us. Our faculty and staff have had amazing experiences, and our students are experiencing the highest quality preparation for the challenging profession of social work. We could not be more proud of being a 2U partner school.” (Jon Singletary, Dean of Baylor Social Work)

"[I]t would be 'difficult to envision' the college offering the same level of service on its own. 'This is a huge deal for a small school that doesn’t have the money to invest in either the resources ourselves to compete with what 2U is investing.'” (Helen Drinan, President of Simmons University, "Huge Deal for a Small School," Inside Higher Ed, February 27, 2017)

"Don’t Facilitate Aggressive Recruiting”

Fiction: “[W]hen that OPM is a for-profit company, as most are, and is also tasked with recruiting, it is incentivized to get as many enrollments as possible.”

Fact: 2U's non-profit university partners set admissions standards and determine admit rates for the programs we power, so 2U's incentive is to deliver on the enrollment targets set by our partners, which is demonstrated by the fact that our portfolio has both large and smaller programs.

“Our contract with 2U states clearly that [the school] controls all the MIDS program. We have complete autonomy in these decisions. The quality of students admitted to MIDS compares favorably to those admitted to our on-campus...program.” (Excerpt from the “Graduate Council Four-Year Review of the Masters of Information and Data Science (MIDS) 2018 UC Berkeley School of Information”)

“[The] fee-for-service model...does not seem to result in less aggressive marketing to students. A Noodle-powered program I looked into used a phone-and-email-heavy approach...(including 13 phone calls from my recruitment counselor).” (The Atlantic)

Although it’s not clear why, TCF has an obvious agenda—promote fee-for-service OPM models over revenue share ones—even though its own report acknowledges that “because our sample size of contracts lacks a larger set of fee-for-service arrangements, it is not possible to speak definitely about pricing for particular services.” Yet, ironically, the “report” boldly asserts throughout—based on little more than conjecture—that fee-for-service contracts are inherently better for universities.

As Steve Hodownes, former CEO of Orbis and SNHU Online & College of Continuing Education, noted in critiquing the report: "in a fee-for-service model, the incentive for the provider is to generate more fees with nominal concern for outcomes. In the revenue share model, the incentives are fully aligned in that both parties want students to be successful. An OPM will not be profitable if the student is not successful–retained and graduates. The university will also have issues if they recruit students and they drop out."

2U's alignment of interests with our university partners and their students, as well as our commitment to and history of delivering quality outcomes, is why I came to work here. It's also why we are leading the OPM industry in the call for greater transparency—we welcome fee-for-service OPM providers joining us—and putting our balance sheet to work in helping bend the cost curve of higher education through a student friendly, interest free deferred tuition plan.

Our agenda and mission is clear: eliminate the back row in higher education by partnering with the world’s top non-profit universities to deliver high-quality, sustainable programs with great student outcomes that serve the needs of lifelong learners.

After reading TCF’s “report,” more people need to be asking: "what's their real agenda?"

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.