What a New Strategy at 2U Means for the Future of Online Higher Education


The fortunes of On-line Program Administration firms, or OPMs, are falling quick nowadays. These firms, which assist faculties arrange on-line applications and infrequently assist finance them as effectively in change for a minimize of revenues, have recently seen a barrage of unhealthy information.

Wiley posted an 8 p.c drop in college associate enrollment for its OPM phase, Pearson misplaced its largest OPM buyer (Arizona State College) and reported falling enrollments (1 p.c) and income (2 p.c), Coursera noticed a 4 p.c drop in income and lowered full-year steerage, 2U dropped its full-year income steerage by 10 p.c and commenced an across-the-board 20 p.c set of layoffs, and FutureLearn reported that it might not survive one other yr with out new funding.

What occurred to this market that many analysts constantly describe as worthwhile and rising, and that many critics fret would take over and privatize a lot of upper schooling?

Reasonably than merely pointing to a pre-pandemic aphorism that college-going at all times declines when unemployment is low, or cheering the collapse of what many teachers see as an undesirable development, it might be helpful to take a deeper take a look at what is occurring to one in every of these firms, 2U, to get a greater understanding of not simply OPMs however the broader tendencies out there for on-line schooling.

2U has been the poster baby for revenue-sharing fashions, and the corporate tends to take advantage of strategic modifications primarily based on broader market circumstances. And as such, it offers extra helpful market insights than its lower-profile opponents. The related information supplied by 2U late final week alongside its earnings was no exception.

The Pivot

What 2U introduced was each a pivot and an acceleration. In 2U’s early years, the corporate targeted on working with one on-line graduate program per self-discipline (in order that none of its companions had been in competitors with one another) and dealing solely with highly-selective applications with low enrollments per course. In essence, 2U labored on high-tuition applications that relied on elite reputations.

2U and the OPM market have come beneath hearth lately for, in impact, encouraging unsustainably excessive graduate program tuition, thus rising pupil debt, culminating within the Wall Road Journal article concerning the College of Southern California’s On-line Masters of Social Work that charged upwards of $115,000 for a two-year program. Whereas the article conflated USC and 2U points, it’s price noting that 2U’s response to the tutoring situation was hands-off—stressing that the associate establishments set tuition, not the corporate.

One key a part of the massive pivot final week is that 2U is now taking an lively function to encourage applications to decrease tuition, first by “exchanging income share factors for tuition discount.” The argument is that it’s simpler for 2U to market lower-tuition applications, and that it’s the proper factor to do.

The second a part of the pivot is that 2U will not supply a one-size-fits-all high-touch method sometimes charging 60 p.c of tuition, as a substitute providing a stackable set of service packages that begin at 35 p.c “for a core set of tech-enabled companies” with choices to go as much as the legacy quantity 2U nonetheless affords the complete bundle for colleges that need all companies. In essence, this permits colleges a greater choice to select solely the companies wanted, which helps with decrease tuition and acknowledges that schools and universities have been growing their very own online-education capabilities. So general, the transfer is from a intentionally excessive price, full bundle of companies to a stackable set of companies and incentives for decrease tuition.

The Acceleration

The acceleration is that 2U goes all in on the schooling platform technique that began with the corporate’s acquisition of edX final yr. The thought on the time was to depend on a flywheel impact, the place edX can upsell to its tens of hundreds of thousands of registered learners taking free or low-cost on-line programs referred to as MOOCs, thus driving down the advertising and marketing prices required for the OPM enterprise, whereas providing a spectrum of choices—from free MOOCs to stackable certificates, to bootcamps and brief programs, all the way in which to full levels. The flywheel side is that the extra the technique succeeds, the extra income is made by institutional companions and by the corporate, resulting in extra free programs and registered learners. It’s a self-reinforcing technique that’s the identical one adopted by Coursera.

2U introduced final week their plan to completely embrace this technique. The corporate will reorganize as one entity beneath the edX model, and it’ll enhance its give attention to sustainability (and profitability) and reduce the give attention to progress. This acceleration sadly signifies that 2U will lay off roughly 20 p.c of its employees throughout all capabilities within the second half of 2022. The declare made to monetary analysts is that income estimates for full-year 2022 could be down 10 p.c, however EBITDA (a preferred measure of revenue) could be up 30 p.c.

2U is an organization that’s keen to make large modifications and never simply experience out the storm. They did it in 2019 after they realized the elevated degree of competitors between on-line applications was resulting in decrease enrollment expectations, and they’re doing it now.

Market and Firm Implications

In pursuing this technique, 2U is betting that the broader marketplace for on-line school applications is altering and should proceed to see reducing enrollments and reducing common course exercise within the brief to medium time period. 2U is betting that these modifications are structural, and never an end-of-pandemic state of affairs that can reverse again to regular.

2U can be betting, or acknowledging, that the times of high-tuition on-line graduate applications are going away. 2U needs to get out of the crosshairs of activists seeking to rein within the revenue-sharing OPM market. Having lower-priced choices and a direct incentive for faculties to set decrease tuition might assist take off this stress, and it might assist faculties make higher choices.

The jury is clearly nonetheless out on whether or not these strategic modifications will work for the corporate. edX was by no means the premier MOOC model—that title belongs to Coursera. And 2U is doubtlessly dropping a few of the hard-won model worth of “2U” when it comes to offering high-quality choices for elite colleges that don’t wish to put their very own manufacturers in danger.

It’s vital to do not forget that earlier than 2U, few highly-selective faculties had been keen to supply fully-online diploma applications. Manufacturers have worth and inertia.

Moreover, for this technique to work, faculties have to be aligned within the want for lower-tuition applications, which isn’t a given. And there are extra questions to contemplate. What would be the impacts of the layoffs, and can firm morale impression their companies for companions? And core to the whole technique, will the flywheel impact work by decreasing the quantity of promoting and recruitment spend wanted to fill on-line applications past what has already been achieved in early 2022?

Whereas I’m not able to say that the modifications will work, I do suppose the modifications had been wanted and are moving into the fitting path concerning decreasing tuition and providing extra versatile, lower-cost decisions.

Resting on its laurels and driving out the storm would have been a mistake, and it is going to be attention-grabbing to trace 2U / edX’s efficiency over the following 2 to three years to study not simply whether or not the technique works, but additionally to raised perceive the altering nature of post-pandemic greater schooling within the U.S.