UND official says Century Foundation report doesn't show full picture

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Jeffrey Holm, chair of the UND Psychology Department, pauses during a tour of renovated psychology offices and classrooms on the second floor of Columbia Hall. Until recently, his department -- one of the largest in the UND College of Arts and Sciences -- was scattered across campus. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A recent study from the progressive think tank Century Foundation claims UND’s deal with its online classroom manager, Pearson, is a lesson in what not to do in online education. However, UND’s top online education official says the report doesn’t take into account several key items.

The study looked at dozens of contracts across the country between public universities and companies, like Pearson, that serve as “online program managers.” UND was labeled as an example of “what not to do” in online education.

In 2018, UND signed a 10-year contract with Pearson to manage its online programs in cybersecurity, nursing and accounting. It has since expanded its work with the company.

The deal wasn’t well received initially on campus, with some professors concerned about how it would affect their ability to deliver curriculum. That's an area pointed out by the Century Foundation report.

In response to the report, Jeff Holm, vice provost for online education and strategic planning with UND, issued a letter back to the Century Foundation and the authors.


“We were disappointed to read that the University of North Dakota and its partnership with Pearson Online Learning (POL) were used in the article as an example of what not to do in online education delivery and as a perceived ‘bad bargain,’” Holm wrote. “Our disappointment centers on several inaccuracies in the article and the authors’ lack of understanding for how UND actually leads the way in many of the best practices for which they advocate.”

UND is mentioned several times throughout the 25-plus-page article.

Holm claims there are inaccuracies very early in the piece about UND’s contract with Pearson.

The Century Foundation report states that “in the early years of the agreement, UND will hand over 62% of its tuition revenue which tapers down to 54% by the 10th year.” However, Holm said that’s not entirely accurate; while the percentages are correct, the deal reaches the 54% mark in the seventh year of the contract, not the 10th.

“Furthermore, we have multiple contracts that have different costs; the contract the authors chose to describe reflects our highest cost,” Holm wrote. “Another of our contracts begins at a 54% payment.”

Holm also felt it was unfair to characterize UND’s contract as being on the higher end of the spectrum. Holm said comparing UND with a university like the University of Arizona is like “comparing apples and oranges.”

“Obviously, the greater number of services provided, the greater the cost will be,” Holm wrote. “UND, for its part, receives marketing and enrollment services, instructional design and student retention services, whereas the contract the authors provide for the other university, with which UND is compared, seems to only cover marketing and enrollment services.”

Holm says UND would argue that its contract is “more advantageous than the other university’s arrangement because, if Pearson’s marketing and enrollment services brings a student into a UND program in which Pearson does not provide instructional design and student retention support, UND would only provide Pearson 20% of the tuition.”


One of the report's main concerns is that UND is bypassing its faculty with the Pearson contract. The report claims that if a member of the UND cybersecurity faculty decides that students would be better “served by changing the curriculum or offering a different track or certification, they would have very little chance of making those changes a reality.”

“This is because UND contracted with Pearson in 2018 to manage an online program in cybersecurity, as well as its online programs in nursing and accounting — contracts that wrest most educational control from the professors and instructors who have been hired to teach those subjects,” the report stated.

However, Holm says that assertion is “misleading.”

“The truth is UND faculty completely control and are accountable for the academic content and integrity of their programs,” Holm said.

Holm said the contracts allow Pearson to cancel, with a 90-day notice, if it thinks enrollments or retention would be grossly negatively impacted by any changes the university decide to make. Holm claims its equally misleading that UND “hands over to Pearson ownership of the data files containing the names and contact information of prospects who inquire about the UND programs.”

“We do contract with (Pearson) to market, recruit and, ultimately, enroll students who our faculty deem as qualified for our programs,” he wrote. “In reality, though, it is (Pearson,) as our affiliate, that collects and protects the information on our behalf.”

Holm’s letter goes on to list other inaccuracies and misrepresentations by the Century Foundation in its article.

“In closing, online education delivery is not something new to UND nor is it something we take lightly,” Holm wrote.


Holm says UND has a history with distance education over the past 100 years, when it began doing correspondence-by-mail in 1911.

“We see UND’s online legacy and future, including our work with (Pearson,) as a means to increased access, fairness and quality learning experiences in education,” Holm wrote. “Interestingly, these are the very ideals that (the Century Foundation) and its Fellows fight for every day.”

Sydney Mook has been the news editor at the Post Bulletin since June 2023. In her role she edits and assigns stories and helps reporters develop their work for readers.

Mook was previously with the Grand Forks Herald from May 2018 to June 2023. She served as the Herald's managing editor, as well as the higher education reporter.

For story pitches contact her at or call her at 507-285-7771.
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