The OPM Industry and the Biden Administration

Three ideas for how the online program management industry might think about a different sort of Education Department.

September 2, 2020
 

Yesterday's Inside Higher Ed article "For-Profits Fear a Biden Presidency" was mostly about for-profit colleges. That article has me thinking about what a Biden win could mean for the online program management industry.

Leaders at OPMs, I imagine, find themselves in a bit of an ideological pickle.

Over the years, I've interacted extensively with the folks who work at online program management companies. While there is, of course, diversity in ideological and political viewpoints, the OPM executives that I know tend to be socially progressive and economically conservative. Some of my OPM friends I'd describe as more libertarian in orientation. Very few of the folks that I know who work at OPMs are Trump supporters.

(Quick note: If you are an OPM leader and a Trump supporter, please reach out. I want to invite you to a respectful Q&A. Your voice is too little heard on platforms such as this. Maybe we can learn something from you.)

How might a socially progressive OPM executive think about a Biden presidency?

A recent Forbes article was headlined "Could Elizabeth Warren Become the Next Education Secretary?" If you read the Jan. 23 letter from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to the CEOs of five OPM companies, you know that OPM leaders might have some cause to worry about a Warren-run Education Department.

Even if Warren stays in the Senate, or runs Treasury or holds some other cabinet post, it is a strong bet that ED under a Biden administration would be more critical of the OPM industry than it is now under Betsy DeVos.

So how should the OPM industry approach a Biden win in November? Here are three ideas:

No. 1: Start Thinking Like an Industry

As far as I know, there is no OPM industry association. No group brings together and advocates for the various parts of the OPM industry. There is no single place that can lobby for policies that are friendly to the OPM business.

Why is this? I'm not sure. Maybe there is an OPM association that I don't know about? If that is true, that group certainly keeps a low profile.

My guess is that we don't have an OPM group because all the players in the space are busy competing with one another. The OPM world is fiercely competitive. The players all seem to know one another. And there is lots of history between those involved.

Perhaps a Biden administration would cause the OPM industry leaders to come together to find common ground. I think an OPM association would be a force for transparency and responsiveness. Such an association would need to have legitimacy among colleges and universities.

An OPM association would need to find a way to understand and then try to address the negative brand image that the industry has across academia.

No. 2: Build Relationships With Your Critics

The situation we have now is that OPM leaders and OPM critics are talking past one another. There is minimal authentic dialogue and active listening going on.

OPM critics are convinced that for-profit online program management companies raise student costs and contribute little to the overall postsecondary sector's health.

OPM executives, and various folks in consulting companies and venture capital firms, are equally convinced that online program management companies provide both schools and students with resources and choice.

The OPM industry would be smart to approach its critics with an open mind. Listen first. Don't be afraid of the criticism. Try to understand where the concerns are coming from.

What is needed is for everyone to start with an assumption of good intent. At least as a starting place. There is an enormous space for the OPM industry to build productive relationships with its critics.

No. 3: Invest in Independent Research

Now is the time for the OPM industry to invest in creating an infrastructure for independent research. The OPMs need to understand that industry-produced research on student and institutional outcomes will not be taken seriously by the higher ed community. The research must be independent, hypothesis-driven and grounded in comparative data.

OPMs should be looking to partner with professional associations (UPCEA, Educause, OLC, etc.), foundations (Gates, Lumina, etc.), think tanks and universities to create the infrastructure for independent research. It is in the OPM industry's interest to support this independent research with both data and dollars.

It is at the level of research where the OPM industry critics and supporters can come together for productive conversations. Even those with very different worldviews of the efficacy of for-profit/nonprofit partnerships can agree on the need for valid and reliable research.

A research-based lens will help build relationships between the OPM industry and whoever is running a Biden administration Education Department. Research should inform both policy and regulation.

The window to begin working on these three recommendations is narrow. The time to start is now.

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