Kim, Urdan and Perspective

September 29, 2020

To the Editor:

Having read Joshua Kim’s article on the OPM “industry” and Trace Urdan’s response, I am moved to provide my own comments.

First, let me say that both my and Trace’s remarks come from decades of experience in higher education, and especially with the for-profit sector. Your respectful characterization of Trace’s background, including his own modest Twitter bio, does not capture the true nature or significance of his contributions to the education community over a considerable period of time.

Trace’s tony credentials notwithstanding, what he describes as “naïve and poorly informed” might just as aptly be termed “lacking historical context.”

To your point concerning OPMs thinking like an industry, I would suggest that OPMs are not thinking like an industry because they are not one. They are part of the current stage of an evolving higher education business/academic model. As the current state-federal-private funding model of higher education continues to falter, OPMs have provided lifelines to struggling institutions, or those about to struggle. They have also provided a model for how higher education can remain a sustainable public good by supplying a viable business support system for America’s academic infrastructure.

OPMs have existed for decades. They were once known as “parent companies” or “holding companies.” I spent some 20 years inside perhaps the most notorious one, the Apollo Group. The original model developed, with help from accreditation and government agencies, into one in which the business management and academic sides of the operation remained separate but collaborative. This model has been replicated, and there are a variety of such examples in the education sector currently. 

With the exception of only a few well-heeled (read: endowed) private and state universities, the coffers of many institutions are not sustainable. This situation is resulting in numerous closures, mergers, and acquisitions. Note that these are not academic processes, but business realities. Trace’s observation that “school partners need to take the field” gets to the heart of the matter. OPMs are not add-ons, parasites, or even necessary evils. Lofty academic goals have to be undergirded with a business model that allows institutions to continue to exist in order to fulfill their missions. This is what OPMs can provide.

Trace correctly points out that negotiating with critics or conducting independent research has been, at best, ineffective. I have direct experience with local, state, and federal organizations in this area. I have presented to professional academic organizations, state governments, and served on NACIQI at the federal level. Until recently, the mere thought of anything like an OPM was downright repugnant to all of these constituencies. Any hint of cooperation or collaboration was rejected out of hand. Now we see prestigious institutions like Purdue acknowledging the efficacy of a blended model.

Your article sets up a classic “us-them” scenario that misses the essence of the current state of higher education in America. This is not a “for-profit” vs. “not-for profit” struggle. In short, OPMs do not represent a threat to higher education. They are rather the next stage in its evolution. Discussion, negotiation, and research are academic approaches to the current tenuous, real condition of American higher education. A pragmatic approach is what is needed. Direct action is called for.

OPMs are part of a basic model for a way to sustain higher education and move it forward. This should not be trivialized as a political or ideological situation.The impact of OPMs (or their next iteration), ultimately, will be to allow institutions of all types and sizes to continue to enrich the education community and our American culture. 

It’s not about Biden. Or Trump. Or politics. It’s about us.

-- Bill Pepicello

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