CUNY pumps $8M into ‘in-house OPM’

Dive Brief: 

  • The City University of New York system is spending $8 million in federal relief funds to develop CUNY Online, a new initiative meant to help its 25 campuses launch and grow online courses and programs. 
  • CUNY Online will be housed under the system’s School of Professional Studies, or SPS, which runs more than three dozen online programs. It aims to grow the system’s online offerings by helping campuses with content development, course design and student support services. 
  • The initiative is currently vetting applications from institutions across the system for help with developing seven to 10 new online programs. Officials expect the system will launch 13 to 20 online programs with CUNY Online’s assistance by fall 2023. 

Dive Insight: 

The coronavirus pandemic underscored the need for many colleges to grow their online offerings, but launching these programs typically requires heavy upfront investments. In turn, many institutions have sought help from online program management companies, or OPMs. These companies often help colleges grow their online offerings by covering the initial startup costs in exchange for a cut of their tuition revenue, usually between 40% and 60%. 

Given CUNY’s tuition rates — which are under $7,000 per semester for full-time in-state undergraduate students, according to its website — typical tuition-share deals aren’t usually tenable business models for the system, said CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez. 

“We have internal capacity,” Matos Rodríguez said. “We are happy with that internal capacity. The stimulus funding provided the jump-start seed money to begin creating programs that have the quality and the creation that SPS is known for.”

CUNY Online will be the primary portal used to promote and enroll students into the online programs. However, the degrees will be offered by the individual campuses, and faculty members at each campus will be responsible for teaching their programs. 

“We think that this leverages the best of what a system has to offer, which is the initiative where we can scale up quickly with quality and then provide a portal that allows for some customization on the campus levels,” Matos Rodríguez said. 

Jorge Silva-Puras, interim dean of CUNY SPS, described the effort as operating as the system’s “in-house OPM.” The initiative is hiring course builders, animators, production specialists and others to aid in growing online programs.

However, campuses will not be required to use CUNY Online for program development. They will retain the ability to instead craft offerings on their own. 

CUNY Online has already kicked off its first round of internal requests for proposals, or RFPs, asking the system’s institutions for new online program ideas. The initiative has received close to 20 applications and is scoring those based on several criteria, including how distinctive the proposed programs are compared to the system’s other offerings and the level of student and job market demand for them. 

The initiative plans to select seven to 10 programs from the first round of RFPs, Silva-Puras said. CUNY Online will host two other rounds, which will respectively focus on growing existing online programs and potentially creating hybrid offerings. 

CUNY’s senior colleges will be expected to match the funding CUNY Online provides to create and grow programs dollar for dollar. Community colleges will have a smaller match, with the expectation that they put in $1 for every $1.50 CUNY Online spends, Silva-Puras said. 

The system expects the initial $8 million to cover up to 20 program launches. 

“I feel pretty confident based on our experience developing our own online programs that we can get it done for that amount,” Silva-Puras said. 

Looking forward, the system is exploring ways to continue funding the initiative, including through donations and state dollars.

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