E-learningSelf Awareness

'They Didn't Care': Inside One University's Sputtering Online Partnership With 2U – The Chronicle of Higher Education

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They dubbed it the “suicide pact.”
When a pair of professors stepped down from their posts at Arcadia University this year, without another job lined up, they did so to halt the creation of a physician-assistant program in partnership with 2U, the online-learning giant.
The joint “hybrid” program, with online courses supplemented by clinical-training sites around the country, would bring in new revenue while taking advantage of Arcadia’s strong reputation in medical education: Its brick-and-mortar physician-assistant program boasts a passage rate on licensure exams of 99 percent.
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They dubbed it the “suicide pact.”
When a pair of professors stepped down from their posts at Arcadia University this year, without another job lined up, they did so to halt the creation of a physician-assistant program in partnership with 2U, the online-learning giant.
The joint “hybrid” program, with online courses supplemented by clinical-training sites around the country, would bring in new revenue while taking advantage of Arcadia’s strong reputation in medical education: Its brick-and-mortar physician-assistant program boasts a passage rate on licensure exams of 99 percent.
The hybrid version would open up a career path for students nationwide, including those who live in remote areas where physician-assistant courses are otherwise unavailable.
But professors at Arcadia, a private, Presbyterian-affiliated university just outside of Philadelphia, became convinced that the 2U-affiliated program was dangerously flawed.
“2U was basically trying to turn our PA program into a cash cow,” said a former professor, Ashley Bell, in an interview with The Chronicle. Bell is one of the two faculty members who resigned in protest. “They made it obvious that they didn’t care about the quality of the program.”
The upheaval at Arcadia may now be affecting its traditional brick-and-mortar physician-assistant program, where both a program director and a full-time professor submitted their resignations in recent weeks.
Partnerships like Arcadia’s allow colleges to avoid paying the full cost of launching online degree programs — the private company assists with course development, marketing, and other start-up costs. But there’s a huge catch: Online program managers, or OPMs, like 2U typically receive at least half of a program’s tuition dollars, which, in Arcadia’s case, is nearly $99,000 per student.
And the colleges are often locked into long-term contracts. Arcadia’s physician-assistant agreement with 2U is for 15 years, according to people familiar with the agreement, and 2U will receive 62.5 percent of tuition revenue during that time.
Under the terms of that 2019 contract, which have not been previously reported, 2U paid Arcadia an immediate lump-sum amount of $2 million. In recent years, Arcadia — like many colleges in the Northeast — has struggled with enrollment declines and tight budgets, so the $2-million upfront payment probably sweetened the deal.
For Arcadia and other colleges across the country, online degree programs represent a huge growth opportunity. Nearly three-quarters of all students in 2020 took at least some online courses, according to federal data, and the trend of growing online offerings predates the pandemic.
And while some colleges create online degree programs on their own, others hire OPMs such as Pearson, 2U, and Academic Partnerships.
Last month the Government Accountability Office released a report on the rise of OPMs. The federal agency found that the number of OPM contracts is rapidly increasing, and the for-profit businesses have now teamed up with at least 550 colleges nationwide, representing a total of at least 2,900 education programs. The GAO also urged Education Department officials to increase their oversight of OPMs.
2U, which is based in Maryland near Washington, D.C., opened in 2008 as one of the pioneers in this industry, and it remains a key player today. But the publicly traded company’s growth has not been without controversy. For example, a 2U partnership with the University of Southern California — to create a $115,000 master’s program in social work — was roundly criticized for lax admission standards, unethical recruiting practices, and low salaries earned by its graduates.
Andrew Hermalyn, 2U’s president of partnerships, told The Chronicle that the company was “working together with Arcadia’s faculty and administration to build high-quality online programs that extend the university’s mission. Together with Arcadia, we are following every process and protocol to the best of our ability to support a successful launch of the hybrid physician-assistant program, and we remain jointly committed to students and to our continued partnership.”
Arcadia and 2U also jointly operate a hybrid physical-therapy program that is currently in good standing with its accreditor.
The infighting at Arcadia highlights the risks when colleges join forces with OPMs.
Arcadia’s faculty resignations seem to have frozen the program’s creation, because the accreditor — the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, known as ARC-PA — requires full-time faculty members to be in place for nine months before any formal site visit, a prerequisite for accreditation to be granted.
After the full-time faculty members left, the program director also stepped down — further dampening any hopes of launching the program soon, as a program director must be on the job for 15 months before any accreditor visit.
The resignations came several months after the accreditor’s virtual site visit to evaluate Arcadia’s fledgling hybrid physician-assistant program.
That virtual visit did not go well.
One former Arcadia professor, who requested anonymity out of a fear of retribution, called the visit “terrible,” “painful,” and “really embarrassing.”
The professor blamed 2U.
“They did not do what they were told they had to do,” the professor told The Chronicle. “They just didn’t. Period.”
Email records and recorded staff meetings show that Arcadia faculty members repeatedly complained that 2U had ignored their input — and those warnings grew more dire as the accreditor’s visit drew near.
The rising tensions between 2U and Arcadia faculty members boiled over when the proposed physician-assistant hybrid program failed its October site visit from ARC-PA, in large part because Arcadia could not prove it had the necessary clinical sites secured.
The accreditor declined to comment on the Arcadia application, which has since been withdrawn.
The university planned to enroll 125 students in the program, and had told the accreditor it had 1,300 clinical sites lined up nationwide to teach those students. But Arcadia could not prove to the accreditor that it had done that.
“The program had only approved two clinical sites for use through their vetting process,” the accreditor wrote.
ARC-PA also wanted more information to prove that Arcadia was fully meeting admissions and curricular standards. And the accreditor faulted the university for failing to show it was committed to meeting the agency’s requirements, “as indicated by the quality of the application submitted and lack of evidence of compliance.”
Arcadia’s provost, Jeff Rutenbeck, told The Chronicle that the university’s accreditation bid had been hampered by the accreditor’s decision in 2020 to update its standards. The university will apply again for the hybrid program, Rutenbeck said, although “I don’t have a timeline right now” for when that will be.
“The application process is always a back-and-forth,” he said.
But was the accreditation defeat due to 2U’s mistakes?
Rutenbeck immediately dismissed that suggestion. “I don’t think of it that way at all,” he said.
After the embarrassing accreditation visit in October, enraged Arcadia faculty members had seen enough. 2U officials blamed the failure on the accreditor, telling the professors that the accreditor’s requirement for detailed clinical-site information was simply unreasonable.
“We will not meet that standard,” said Jessica Wang, a senior vice president at 2U, during a Zoom call with Arcadia professors. Wang said she would be “surprised” if any college could meet the accreditor’s strict criteria.
But Arcadia’s program director, Renee Langstaff, shot back: “Our accrediting body is not gonna take that. And you’re wrong.”
Langstaff told 2U officials that “plenty of schools” had successfully navigated the accreditor’s requirements and won approval for new programs.
According to the accreditor’s website, more than two dozen new physician-assistant programs have been approved since the stricter standards took effect, in September 2020.
Later in the Zoom meeting, another professor complained that 2U had an arrogant “we know better” attitude when interacting with Arcadia faculty members. And because of that attitude, the urgent warnings about the accreditor’s expectations had been dismissed, the professor said.
“It’s not a partnership,” the professor said in the meeting. “I’ve not experienced a partnership with 2U at all.”
In response to The Chronicle, 2U released the following statement about Wang’s comments during the October Zoom meeting:
“Jessica Wang is an industry leader with over a decade of experience overseeing a dedicated team of professionals who have helped more than 42,000 students secure successful clinical placements across all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” the company wrote. “Under Ms. Wang’s guidance, to the best of our knowledge, there has never been an instance where a partner’s program that requires clinical placements did not ultimately achieve accreditation.
“2U has immense respect for the accrediting bodies and the accreditation process — a core function that our university partners oversee — and we work to support our partners as they build clinical programs and apply for accreditation,” 2U’s statement continued. “Ms. Wang’s remarks must be viewed in full context. The point she was making was that, given the timeline, the geographic scope of the program, and the very specific and recently updated documentation requirements sought by the site reviewer, it would have been difficult to adequately meet these requirements during the specific site visit in question. Her other comments were also focused on the site visit and not meant to suggest that the program could never meet the required accreditation standards or that they were unreasonable.”
A month after the failed accreditor visit, Rutenbeck pledged to faculty members he would hold 2U accountable for its past promises. But Langstaff, the program director, remained unconvinced.
“I’m at a loss and I’m exhausted, to be quite honest with you,” Langstaff told the provost at a staff meeting. “And I don’t really have any faith in the company.”
Within months, Langstaff submitted her resignation.
When reached by The Chronicle, Langstaff declined to comment.
Bell, the former Arcadia professor, told The Chronicle she had lost faith in 2U’s curriculum-design team, many of whom, she said, had gained their expertise in elementary and secondary education, not higher ed. The professor said she had become frustrated when her basic requests to 2U were repeatedly met with either delays or pushback from company representatives.
For example, Arcadia faculty members struggled to gain access to 2U’s elegant Washington, D.C., studio to record their lectures, and frequently had to deliver the lectures from their own homes. And email records show that a faculty request for expanded access to courses in development — so that they could be synchronized across the curriculum — was met with hesitation by a 2U employee, who questioned the need for that change, debated whether faculty members had indeed made the request during a prior meeting, and wrote that “there’s a little bit more than meets the eye here than simply having course-planner access.”
An exasperated Bell forwarded that April 20, 2021, email exchange with 2U to her fellow faculty members.
“Why is everything an argument?” she wrote.
In a written statement, 2U told The Chronicle that the Covid-19 pandemic had disrupted the availability of the Washington recording studio.
“Covid-19 safety procedures to limit in-person capacity at 2U’s content-production studio were implemented in Spring 2020,” the company wrote. “To adhere to those procedures and limit in-person contact, 2U’s studio was made accessible for partners who needed to film particularly complex or time-sensitive course materials.”
2U added that the development of high-quality physician-assistant courses for Arcadia was nevertheless achieved, on time, using teleconference-recording equipment.
“With the reopening of 2U facilities, we are now returning to a more typical blend of in-studio and remote filming, based on pedagogical requirements and faculty needs,” the company wrote.
When Arcadia’s accreditation troubles began, the hybrid program’s entering class of 25 students was forced to delay its start date. But as the problems mounted, the university had no clear target date for achieving accreditation, and Arcadia administrators eventually informed the students that they would need to find another university to attend.
“The program has been ‘delayed indefinitely,’ is what they said,” recalled one former student, who asked to remain anonymous because he is now applying to programs at other colleges. “And they said, ‘Sorry and good luck in your future endeavors.’”
The student said Arcadia officials had initially assured students that everything would be fine.
Then the message abruptly changed.
“It really hurt, because they didn’t say like, ‘Oh, apply again next cycle’; they didn’t say, ‘We’re sorry, this might take a year or so,’” the student said. “No, this was just like, ‘We’re done, we’re throwing in the towel, that’s it.’ And that really hurt.”
In her resignation letter, Bell, the onetime director of didactic education for Arcadia’s hybrid program, wrote, “It has become increasingly clear that my principles, values, and priorities are no longer in alignment with the direction of the program and the university.”
Bell told The Chronicle: “2U made trying to build a hybrid program much more difficult than it needed to be. They threw up barriers at every turn, and ultimately they let not only us, but they let 25 students down. And that was the ultimate reason why we left. We could not trust 2U to follow through on their commitments, and we couldn’t trust Arcadia to hold 2U accountable to those commitments.”

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