Can the City University of New York Successfully Bring the “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing” into the Fold?

“Experience,” Oscar Wilde quipped in in 1892 comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan, “is the name every one gives to their mistakes.” Well, in my administrative roles I’ve made many mistakes and perhaps as a result I did pick up a few bits of hard-earned wisdom.

As the City University of New York tries to create an in-house Online Program Manager, let me offer some lessons that I draw from my own personal experience. After all, one of the goals of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning that I directed was to leverage the system’s strengths to provide consulting services to the campuses and health science centers, work with their faculty to develop online programs, and create the Technological and service infrastructure to support high quality online learning at scale.

Online Program Managers are widely criticized for good reasons:

  • The share of program revenue they extract typically runs upwards of 50 percent.
  • Their agreements lock institutions into long-term contracts that are exceedingly difficult to end.
  • The OPMs are incentivized to engage in overly aggressive and even deceptive marketing and recruitment practices.
  • Colleges and universities cede too much authority – over admissions, and even academic content and instructional staffing – to the OPMs.

In response to these criticisms, a growing number of OPMs have followed the example of Noodle and have replaced revenue sharing with various fees for services arrangements.

However, OPMs do provide certain essential services in exchange for their upfront investment.

  • Strategy Formulation
  • Program and Course Design and Development
  • State Authorization
  • Recruitment, Enrollment, and Reenrollment
  • Student Support Services
  • Technology Infrastructure

But what if public university systems were to bring those functions in-house and build capacity internally. Wouldn’t that result in huge cost-savings? I’d like to think so.

Let me begin with a few observations.

1. The investment that CUNY is considering — $8 million – may seem like a lot of money, but is unlikely to be sufficient to develop programs and market the 13 to 20 that CUNY expects to launch by Fall 2023.
Expenses for marketing, instructional design, and creating a strong back end for admissions, course registration, and student support will far exceed $8 million, and will recur year after year.

CUNY does bring some advantages to the table. It already has a well-developed School of Professional Studies. Its local market is large enough that it need not advertise or recruit nationally. But talent and marketing are costly, and CUNY needs to ensure that any programs meet high standards for quality.

2. Threading the needle between centralization and campus autonomy is among the hardest tasks any higher education system faces.
Even though the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning was able to offer OPM services at a fraction of the cost of the for-profits (around 20 percent of revenue versus 50 percent or more), it still proved to be very hard to obtain campus buy-in.

Convincing individual campuses to work with a central in-house OPM will require senior system leadership to make this a system priority.

3. Stick-to-it-iveness is not especially common character trait within higher education, but success in the OPM space will require a long-term commitment.
Many colleges and universities tout the virtues of persistence, but tend to follow Google’s example: innovate, then move on to something else. Perhaps you recall a host of Google’s highly hyped initiatives that eventually disappeared: Google Allo, Google Answers, Google Buzz, Google Glass, Google Hangouts, Google Health, Google Lively, Google Play Music, Google Nexus, Google Plus, Google Reader, Google Video , Google Wave, and iGoogle.

So what practical advice would I offer?

1. Before making a very substantial investment in expanded online programming, make sure there’s agreement on the goals.
Is the goal to generate revenue? To meet pressing but untapped needs? To cut costs by substituting online for face-to-face instruction? And what market are you eager to target: Working adults? Degree completers, Degree holders?

In other words, know your end goals before you invest.

2. Be strategic.
The departments that may want to offer online programs are generally not the high demand programs that the system needs. It’s often flailing departments that want to roll the dice and go online. But that’s not where the students are. In general, the students most eager to pursue online programs do not want a general studies degree. Rather, they typically seek a career-aligned program with a well-defined value proposition.

3. Quality matters and quality is expensive.

Sure, low-quality programs can be created cheaply. If your goal is to keep tuition low, all you have to do is design a master syllabus, produce a common set of PowerPoint slides, and rely on the least expensive instructors you can find. Then take other steps to accelerate time to degree. Cut the length of semesters. Award credit for prior learning.

Or you can mimic the for-profits and their non-profit copycats – a subject discussed with great insight in Stephen C. Ehrmann’s must-read book, Pursuing Quality, Access, and Affordability.

Disaggregate the faculty role. Use dedicated instructional designers, rather than faculty members, to create the courses, often drawing upon existing online instructional materials. Substitute low-cost course mentors, tutors, and graders for Ph.Ds with subject-matter expertise. Adopt an asynchronous “self-paced, self-directed” approach that requires no class meetings, no substantive discussions, no peer interaction, and no team-based activities. Limit substantive feedback to end-of-course student projects.

Conversely, creating high quality online programs that maximize student interaction and active-, inquiry-, problem-, and team-based learning, that includes regular, substantive feedback from an expert, and involves frequent discussion, debates, and peer responses is very expensive .

4. Don’t neglect student support.
We mustn’t delude ourselves. Many of the students most likely to enroll in online programs, especially at the undergraduate level, require 360-degree support. Chatbots and robo-tutors are nowhere near enough. Support requires proactive outreach, personalized advising, career counseling, and genuine mentoring – none of which comes cheap.

Let me conclude with some last pieces of advice. As it enters online programming in a big way, CUNY might consider a number of complementary approaches.

Approach 1: Enhanced opportunities for commuting students.
A commute for many CUNY students is a two-hour commitment. Expanded online offerings or hybrid or low-residency courses would make it much easier for these students to maintain full-time status and complete a degree in a timely manner.

Approach 2: A heightened emphasis on systemness.
I understand the appeal of institutional autonomy. But why not take better advantage of the CUNY system’s scope and range of expertise? Online learning holds out the prospect of letting many more students benefit from the faculty found across the system. But this will require making credit transfer across the system seamless and transparent.

Approach 3: Creating an online educational marketplace that all its campuses could participate in.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that Calbright, California’s career-focused online college, had a possibly fatal flaw. Because it was perceived as in direct competition to the existing campuses, it had differentiated itself by awarding certificates rather than degrees.

But imagine an alternative, a CUNY United that showcased offerings from the system’s 25 campuses and served not just as a portal but as a central mechanism for providing advising and support and for guaranteeing high levels of instructional quality.

FOMO – fear of missing out – has motivated an ever-increasing number of colleges and universities to join the stampede to mass market online learning. Many institutions hope to become the next Western Governors University or Southern New Hampshire. Market saturation is one of the consequences. Laggards and other late comers have discovered that they are up against a big first-mover advantage.

So what’s my advice in a nutshell? CUNY should remain true to its distinctive mission and double down on its unique strengths. That mission is to provide a highly affordable education of the highest quality to all students, irrespective of their background and income. It is also to serve as an engine of social mobility, but one that does not subordinate well-rounded student development or research simply to career preparation and credentialing as many online universities currently do.

It’s striking, as Stephen Ehrmann has pointed out, that many predominantly online universities have been able to abandon what you and I would consider faculty governance, faculty control over the curriculum, and a conception of the faculty role that is truly multifaceted. They have been allowed to do this in the name of innovation and of cost cutting and of serving populations that higher education has historically underserved.

But let’s not confuse this with the kind of higher education that we as parents want for our own children. Let’s not diminish quality or rigor on the altar of convenience, speed, or affordability.

Let’s adapt the old labor phrase — “We want bread, but we want roses, too!” – to higher education. Let’s recognize that the notion of an iron triangle (which would only allow us to have two of the following three items — access, affordability, and quality) presents us with a false choice. A society as wealthy as ours should be able to combine quality, flexibility, and affordability.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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