Ivory Tower in the Cloud
Long the domain of seedy degree mills peddling debt-laden vocational training, online education is now a priority, and a profit center, at top-tier universities thanks to innovators like 2U Inc.
In 2014, when Douglas Shackelford was named dean of UNC’S Kenan-flagler Business School, his most important strategic initiative was clear. UNC was a top-tier public university, but its Bschool, barely in the top 20, was on a mission to greatly expand its enrollment on the cheap.
“Our traditional revenue sources were changing, and not in a good direction,” says Shackelford, 60.
So UNC forged ahead with a little-known company called 2U, based in Lanham, Maryland. In exchange for 60% of future tuition revenues, 2U would invest $5 million to $10 million building out UNC’S so ware and marketing capabilities, scour the globe for online applicants and, importantly, leave the admissions decisions and teaching to Chapel Hill.
e results have been impressive: Seven years a er it launched its program with 2U, UNC is the largest online M.B.A. provider, with 938 students, most of whom pay full tuition. Only half as many are enrolled in the full-time residential program. “We’ve doubled our student body without adding any buildings in Chapel Hill,” says Shackelford, noting that tuition for MBA@UNC costs $124,000. In fact, online revenue has nearly tripled to $14 million, while faculty head count has held steady, and operating income has gone from a $1.4 million loss to a $5 million pro t.
Known as an online-program manager, or OPM, 2U is the nation’s leading provider of so ware for universities seeking to quickly expand enrollment digitally. Its cloud-based content-management platform allows students and sta ers to seamlessly connect to universities’ existing systems, handling everything from loading lectures and hosting intimate discussion groups to troubleshooting technical glitches.
In its rst decade, 38,000-plus students have en- rolled in 2U-administered degree programs, and 2U is on track to generate as much as $412 million in revenue this year, a 44% increase. e company isn’t yet pro table since it’s launching programs at a quickening pace and only recoups its he y initial investments by the fourth year of its typical tenyear contract. Still, 2U’s Nasdaq-listed shares have risen from their 2014 IPO price of $13 to $80, making the company worth $4.7 billion. “We have a massive amount of market runway,” says 2U chief executive and cofounder Chip Paucek, who’s aiming for 5% of the $80 billion global market for graduate degrees.
Master’s programs are 2U’s sweet spot, and its offerings to university administrators are soup to nuts. Besides so ware, the company has a small army of social-media-savvy marketers to assist in recruiting. It also nds placements for students in areas like education, nursing and social work. For Georgetown’s midwifery program, for instance, 2U partnered with hospitals so that each online student delivers 20 to 40 babies by graduation. When USC’S Rossier School of Education demanded that candidates have at least three semester-long teaching placements, 2U built relationships with elementary and high schools in 50 states. So far it has placed over 43,000 students.
For Cory Broussard, 37, who got his M.B.A. from UNC in 2014, it meant not having to quit his day job as an engineer on an o shore platform for Shell in the
Gulf of Mexico. “ e professors were just brilliant,” says Broussard, who, like all 2U students, attended periodic immersion sessions on campus.
OPMS have a dismal reputation in education circles because they have long been associated with for-pro t boiler-room-type operations. ey came under the scrutiny of the Department of Education, in part because they encouraged students to pile on government-backed loans to nance dubious degrees. By avoiding any notion of being an academic institution, 2U has positioned itself as a white-label so ware-and-services rm with a blue-chip client base. Its graduate o erings are in elds with strong job prospects. Besides UNC, 2U has o erings with schools including Yale, NYU, UC Berkeley, Tu s, Northwestern and Vanderbilt.
Timing is everything in business, and 2U’s crisis-era launch was fortunate. With nances strained and digital technologies disrupting nearly every industry, top universities nally accepted online degree programs as equal to on-campus alternatives. 2U has 64 degree programs with 26 universities and is adding more than 14 new programs each year.
Paucek, 47, 2U’s mastermind, has been involved in educational ventures since the early 1990s. In the 2000s, Paucek ran Hooked on Phonics for Sylvan Learning. A er its parent company was sold, Paucek partnered with John Katzman, the founder of Princeton Review, to start 2U in 2008.
2U’s success has sparked a deluge of competitors, including a new out t from Katzman, who le in 2012. ere are others: Coursera, which operates massive open online courses (MOOC), manages a $22,000 a year M.B.A. at the University of Illinois and will soon start programs at Michigan and Penn. Edx, a MOOC founded by Harvard and MIT, o ers a master of science in analytics from Georgia Tech for less than $10,000 and will launch 13 other programs. Overall, the number of OPMS is 30 and rising, according to Eduventures Research.
If that weren’t enough, schools like Harvard and Cornell are building their own systems. Short-sellers are thus eyeing 2U, as margin pressure is inevitable.
Paucek is undeterred. Last May he acquired short-course provider Getsmarter, which o ers certi cate programs in data science, arti cial intelligence and blockchain. Recently, 2U became the rst OPM to o er a juris doctor. Paucek also plans to o er medical, dental and veterinarian degrees.
Don’t underestimate 2U’s rst-mover advantage. In academia, where risk-taking is anathema, reputation and word of mouth o en trump hard economic analysis. “It’s a pretty simple business,” Paucek says, whose 2U stake is worth $100 million. “If the student wins, the university wins. If the university wins, we win. We believe that. It’s not some PR talk.”
2U chief Chip Paucek at the company’s headquarters in Lanham, Maryland.The books may be props, but 2U’s $4.7 billion valuation speaks volumes about its acceptance at scholarly institutions.
HOW TO PLAY ITBY JON D. MARKMANRobust data networks underpin innovative business models like 2U. One way to play this trend is T-mobile, the wireless communications company serving 72.6 million customers. Through second-quarter 2018, it logged 21 straight quarters with more than 1 million net new accounts. Churn, the percentage of customers who have stopped subscribing, is 0.95%, a record low. T-mobile announced plans to deliver 5G to 30 cities in 2018. These blisteringly fast, stable networks will allow T-mobile to compete with cable companies and allow customers like 2U to dream up new horizons for online education. Shares trade at 12x trailing earnings.