The False Narrative Around For-Profit Companies Needs to End

As the co-founder and chief executive of 2U, a public education-technology company that is working to expand access to education, I feel a daily responsibility to defend our business model and the work our thousands of employees do. The reason? A never-ending barrage of arrows coming our way from a small segment of the population choosing to presume that we are bad actors because of our tax status.

Building and running a sustainable, mission-driven business is hard, and fair criticism is part of any true dialogue. That’s not what I am talking about here.

The extreme vitriol directed at companies in higher education attempting to build successful businesses by supporting nonprofit colleges is unfair and unproductive. A profit motive does not inherently mean there can’t be other, equally important motives.

Most days bring a new accusation or a biased attack from someone or some organization trying to tear down 2U or villify the broader ed-tech sector because of our business models. Most of the time those attacks contain inaccurate or deliberately misleading information and omit significant details. Critics rarely mention program quality, graduation rates, or student outcomes, for instance. And they almost never describe the complex societal needs we’re working to solve: making higher education more attainable and work-force development more efficient, effective, and inclusive.

Last week provided yet another example of just this sort of unproductive, agenda-driven rancor. In “It’s Time to End Higher Ed’s Gimmicky Sales Tactics,” a Chronicle op-ed by a higher-education policy analyst, you’ll find a lot of rhetoric deriding public-private partnerships and tarring online program managers as “shoddy for-profit operations.” What you won’t find? A single data point on what matters: program quality or student outcomes.

A few facts to help set the record straight:

  1. Public-private partnerships in higher education have created some of the highest quality online programs available today, including many top-ranked by U.S. News & World Report. The partnerships have enabled nonprofit colleges and universities to reach new, nontraditional students and create a more diverse, better-educated work force. Indeed, as of the fall of 2019, more than two-thirds of all distance-education students were enrolled at public institutions.
  2. Online programs supported by partners like 2U and others deliver strong retention, graduation rates, and outcomes. Gallup found that 97 percent of alumni of online graduate-degree programs supported by 2U had achieved positive career outcomes, and that the average graduate of a technology boot camp earned an $11,000 boost in salary in the year after graduation.
  3. Contrary to popular belief, lower prices are better for our business: We actively incentivize our university partners to reduce tuition. Our partners set tuition for their programs at their sole discretion, and there is no evidence that 2U’s revenue-share arrangements drive up costs.

I recognize that higher education is an industry that continues to face a complex array of systemic challenges. But I have a question for our critics and all those who question the motives of for-profit companies in higher ed: Do you have any comprehensive data on student outcomes to back up your criticism?

Any business — nonprofit or for-profit — that directly affects people and communities should be held to high standards. And I appreciate and agree with the calls for increased transparency, affordability, and standards across higher ed. Our company, 2U, has worked to lead the industry over the past decade with things like our transparency reports, Gallup studies, and accessible pricing.

And yet outcomes reporting is an issue that transcends digital partnerships.

Today it’s almost impossible to compare the outcomes of online graduates and on-campus graduates, let alone compare OPM-powered courses with the rest of the online-program landscape. The data are either nonexistent or inconsistent across institutions. If you don’t believe me, believe Robert Kelchen.

And without clear, publicly available data on student outcomes across all higher-education programs, it’s exceedingly difficult for advocates to make sound, smart, or even rational policy recommendations that best serve students.

It’s far easier to create a for-profit bogeyman. But I’m tired of being a convenient target for so-called student advocates more concerned with quick policy wins than productive, data-driven analysis.

The decisions, innovations, and investments we make at 2U are not only to drive our business forward, but also to advance our mission and serve our partners. We wake up each morning in service to the more than 45 million learners who come to our platform seeking life-changing learning opportunities.

While that is not how our mission is painted in the false narrative that has been carelessly perpetuated for years, I am incredibly proud of what we continue to build, the people I get to do it with, and the impact we’re having on the world. And we have the stats to prove it.

So let’s talk about the data. Let’s talk about facts. And then let’s work together to make sure that higher education is delivering the type of accessible, high-quality education that serves students best.

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