Comments on OPM Guidance Review at U.S. Department of Education Hearing

WASHINGTON — Tanya Ang, managing director, advocacy at Higher Learning Advocates, testified at a hearing held by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) today as it reviews 2011 guidance that allows online program management (OPM) and institutions of higher education (IHEs) to establish income share agreements. Higher Learning Advocates urged the Department to prioritize transparency, accountability, and student outcomes as the Department reviews how to adequately monitor future IHE and OPM contracts.

Thank you. My name is Tanya, and I am the Managing Director for Advocacy at Higher Learning Advocates—a nonprofit advocacy organization working toward bipartisan federal policies to better serve today’s students. Today’s students are more diverse than any previous generation of college students—in age, race, and income level and many have work and family responsibilities that extend beyond the classroom.

HLA commends ED for its interest in better understanding the partnerships for bundled services between higher education institutions and OPMs and incentive compensation. Higher education is rooted in history and tradition. However, as technology continues to evolve, institutions must be agile in how they offer their services.

OPM partnerships, when done correctly, can be valuable assets for institutions to meet an ever-changing landscape, as well as the needs of their students. Partnerships with OPMs allowed institutions to quickly pivot to online learning during COVID, so students’ education was not disrupted. Today, they enable institutions to enhance academic programming for adult learners, especially the 39 million adults with some credit but no credential. Unfortunately, as you have heard this week, some experiences with OPMs have been harmful to students.

Innovation is necessary, yet, not at the expense of students.

Striking a balance between quality and innovation is challenging but necessary. Above all, transparency and accountability for student outcomes should be at the forefront of each agreement.

To that end, HLA recommends the following principles as ED works to address the activities that may raise concerns under the current incentive compensation guidance.

  • Require all OPM contracts to be reviewed and approved by accreditors before they are finalized, including review of any substantial change to the contract.
  • Ensure OPMs contracted with institutions to recruit students truly offer a suite of bundled services. ED can address this further by answering the following questions:
    • Should ED provide an industry standard explicitly outlining what share of recruiting services OPMs can or cannot provide compared to other core services? And
    • What penalties and liabilities should exist for those institutions and OPMs that violate this industry standard?
  • ED might also consider providing stronger guidance to institutions around disclosure of recruitment policies for these partnerships that keep students in mind, such as:
    • Binding OPMs by institutions’ policies and codes of conduct for recruiting students.
    • Making OPM partnerships transparent to prospective students in recruitment materials.
    • Requiring OPM employees and materials to disclose to students and prospective students that they are not employees of the institution.
  • Lastly, ED might consider creating spaces for institutions and OPMs to learn together where those in the industry come together to share best practices when it comes to issues such as:
    • Appropriate contract development, review, and renegotiations;
    • Fostering an institutional environment necessary to enter into and manage a fruitful and student outcomes-oriented agreement with an OPM; and
    • Exploring challenges and opportunities by institutional sector and campus size.

We look forward to continued collaboration with the Department on this issue.