Paul Pastorek is the CEO and president of the University of Arizona Global Campus, a large online institution.
This summer, the University of Arizona Global Campus announced that it would terminate its relationship with Zovio, the for-profit company that once provided services to UAGC. That decision brought an early end to what began in late 2020 as a 15-year agreement with the company.
We cut ties with Zovio because of a fundamental difference between our institutional missions.
Zovio was an online program management company, or OPM. Like most other OPMs, its operations focused on generating leads and recruiting students — more so than retention and student success. In exchange for its services, Zovio took a cut of UAGC’s revenue. We found we had irreconcilable differences because this approach was not student-centered.
Bringing the responsibility for managing our online programs within the purview of our directors opens the door to increasing efficiency, reducing costs and improving student outcomes. It has created an opportunity to pair private innovations with the potential — and values — of higher education. I believe this is critical to more successful outcomes and hope more institutions follow suit by radically rethinking their approach to OPMs.
UAGC is not alone in reconsidering its relationship with the OPM model. With increasing policy and regulatory scrutiny, more college leaders are asking tough questions about whether this model is compatible with the needs of students or conducive to their success and outcomes. In several key respects, longtime critics of the outsourced, revenue-sharing model of OPMs have been right to be so skeptical.
The pressures faced by publicly traded companies like Zovio — or even private businesses — create financial incentives for OPMs that are rarely in the best interests of students and educators.
Too often, OPMs have helped institutions’ online learning programs to scale at the cost of student outcomes. Outsourcing critical functions such as enrollment, marketing, student advising and financial aid is at odds with the promise and aspirations of higher education.
At the same time, the rise of OPMs and institutions’ growing reliance on them is, in some ways, understandable. As online learning has expanded in recent years, the continuity and seamless service OPMs could provide to institutions was difficult to deny or, certainly, to replicate. Many colleges and universities lacked the capacity to manage online programs on such a scale on their own. That need only grew as demand for virtual learning exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following our separation from Zovio, UAGC has not only undertaken efforts that shift the structure and responsibility for critical decisions around enrollment, marketing and student advising to a fully in-house team, it unlocked resources that will enable us to make investments that better align with our mission: providing adult learners with affordable college credentials that prepare them for careers in a rapidly evolving global economy.
Savings from increased efficiency and reduced costs will be reinvested in the student experience — and entirely at our discretion. No longer stifled by the contractual obligations of a company primarily motivated by profit, our faculty and staff are already expressing they have greater freedom to innovate and find new ways to enhance student success. We are all aligned under one common goal, working together to move the institution in the same direction.
Of course, not every institution can acquire the capabilities of an OPM to enable such a transformation. Still, all colleges and universities can begin to reappraise their relationships with OPM providers. Institutions can bring as many services as they can under one roof and seek out high-quality, mission-aligned partners to support, not unilaterally provide, those services.
They could also move toward a hybrid model of online program management. This would involve institutions supplementing their internal expertise with fee-for-service contracts with third-party vendors aligned with their goals and values.
Institutions should be selective, and they should be wary of relinquishing control over functions such as tuition price-setting and financial aid, recruiting, admission, and program and institutional integrity. They should avoid lengthy contracts that put a stranglehold on university leadership, faculty and staff and limit their ability to innovate, adapt and respond.
At the University of Arizona Global Campus, these are hard-earned lessons gleaned from many difficult conversations, much soul-searching, and a complex process of reflection, research and restructuring. We hope we can serve as an example for other institutions similarly exploring how to best serve their online learners.
In an era where online education is firmly part of the higher education mainstream, the need for colleges to take control of online program management and development will only grow more urgent. Moving beyond the entrenched OPM model will enable institutions to create a stronger system that allows for significant scale without sacrificing quality or responsiveness.