Erin Boehmer lives in Boston, but this summer, the 24-year-old will earn a master's in information and data science from U.C. Berkeley.
The diploma won't say "online," and it won't have been completed through a massive course depository like Coursera. Instead, Boehmer will have completed a bona fide Berkeley graduate program with the help of a company called 2U.
Since it was founded in 2008, 2U has filled what universities say is a relatively untapped market in online education. Schools want to evolve and offer online degrees, but they don't always have the technological capability to do it. 2U provides the infrastructure while the colleges provide the students and the coursework, and both parties share revenue.
Courtesy of Erin Boehmer
Where MOOCs, or massive open online courses, allow students to enroll in individual classes instead of entire degree programs and progress at their own pace, 2U’s platform puts a small number of students (the average class size is less than 11) and a professor into an online classroom complete with video chat capabilities and breakout sessions for group work. Professors, who typically also teach traditional courses at their universities, hold online office hours, and students are required to make a few trips to the brick-and-mortar campus during their degree. Tuition is also the same.
James Kenigsberg, chief technology officer of 2U and a member of the founding team, told Fusion during a recent phone interview that he and his co-founders realized for-profit colleges had figured out the business of online education but weren't doing such a great job at the education part, while universities had figured out the education part but weren't so hot on the business side of things.
"I think we'll see all [schools] taking their programs online," said Kenigsberg, who formerly led the tech team at The Princeton Review.
The idea is particularly appealing for graduate schools looking to attract great candidates —who are often mid-career and unwilling or unable to quit their jobs and uproot their lives for a master’s degree. It's also an appealing option for expats or military service members living abroad.
Boehmer is currently working for the Department of Defense as a civil engineer and owes the government several years in Boston in return for having her undergraduate tuition paid.
AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of Berkeley's School of Information, told Fusion partnering with 2U alleviated some of the business risk for the university.
There are challenges, though. 2U operates like a startup, Saxenian said, while Berkeley is a university that moves much more slowly. 2U's advertising is flashier than the school might select on its own. Generally, though, the relationship has been favorable.
Right now, the company has agreements with 13 universities, including Yale, Georgetown and Syracuse, serving around 13,000 students from nearly 80 countries.
According to a report recently released by the company, 83 percent of students enrolled in 2U-powered programs have graduated or are still enrolled. That's a somewhat higher completion rate than for students entering graduate school overall, according to data from the Council of Graduate Schools. The numbers vary by field of study, but only about two-thirds of science, technology, engineering and math master's students complete their programs, while about 86 percent of business students complete their master's.
Courtesy of 2U
Amy McHale, assistant dean for masters programs for Syracuse’s Whitman School of Management, told Fusion interest in the school’s own online program had been “dwindling,” and 2U offered the school not only the technology to make it more appealing, but marketing expertise.
Several schools, including the University of Maryland and Temple University, have entered the business school scene with shorter programs in recent years, she said, and Syracuse knew it needed to evolve to stay competitive.
Through 2U, the school has been able to “cast a wider net,” she added, noting that the program is now open to a student who is deployed because of 2U’s technology capability. Class sessions and other materials are available on mobile as well as desktop.
Rob Cohen, president and chief operating officer, told Fusion the company’s goal is to offer great programs that are “great by education standards, never to do something great by online standards.”
Both 2U and students push back at the idea that participants miss out on the “in real life” benefits of graduate school.
There’s a “pub room” on Fridays where people hang out, Cohen said, and there have been romances and even a marriage out of ‘campus’ connections.
Right now, 2U may be the leader in this space, but increasingly, there is competition, and success depends on partnering with universities that are willing to grow their programs.
“It starts with a dean wanting to change the way their education works,” Cohen said.
Cohen expects more students to go online to pursue advanced degrees and fewer to head for actual classrooms in the coming years.
Last week, the education site Noodle launched Noodle Partners, which, like 2U, will help schools build online-education platforms. Its founder is John Katzman, who also helped found 2U and served as the CEO. Noodle says it will give schools options, assembling rather than building platforms.
Education giant Pearson owns the online learning provider Embanet. Deltak, owned by a company called Wiley Global Ed Solutions, is another provider.
“Some companies will sell pieces…I’m only willing to sell comprehensive services," Cohen said.
While the company has posted net losses, filings show revenue has increased for each of the past four years, including $110.2 million in 2014, a 33 percent increase from $83.1 million in 2013.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.