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Author Glenda Morgan

Looking At Program Debt Levels Relative to OPMs

By 2023-04-10April 13th, 2023One Comment

This is part 2 in a series looking at the claims that institutional usage of Online Program Management (OPM) companies leads to higher student debt levels. Part 1 can be found here.

I still don’t see convincing evidence that OPMs lead to higher student debt, but I do see troubling signs that large programs are recruiting many students who cannot afford high priced programs. [link to full-page audio]

In my previous post I examined whether tuition was higher in OPM-enabled online programs. In that initial view I found no convincing evidence showing that programs enabled by OPM’s led to greater student debt. In that post I focused on Master of Social Work (MSW) tuition, which is the program most often cited by those promoting the OPM usage increases student debt view. It’s an important first step toward understanding debt, but we also need to look at the kinds of debt that MSW students end up assuming.

First a caveat about the data which are drawn from the College Scorecard. The scorecards lumps data about online programs together with the older and often much larger on-campus programs.

Debt is generally correlated with tuition costs

The chart below shows that generally debt is proportional to tuition. There are some outliers in the data such as the infamous USC program (1) with student debt levels reaching north of $120,000 and Clark Atlanta University and Widener University with debt in the $80,000 range despite relatively modest tuition levels. But overall, the two metrics track each other. We all agree that tuition for many programs is high and debt levels excessive given the salaries to which the credential leads. 

But there is something curious going on with institutions at the top end of the scale.

If we look at programs with high tuition and debt loads, it’s clear there is an issue. Five of the top ten programs are OPM-enabled, but that also means that five are not. And if you rank all 300+ programs according to student debt you find OPM partnerships in the middle and towards the low end of the list. And remember that the debt numbers refer to debt for all modalities of MSW degree, not just the online programs where OPMs have been involved. I don’t think the data leads to simple conclusions such as OPM partnerships lead to greater student debt. 

But as I dug into the data for the programs near the top end of the scale using additional data from the College Scorecard, some interesting patterns began to emerge.

Median debt load, program cost and Pell-eligible enrollment for institutions with the heaviest debt load

Most of the programs where students accrue a lot of debt are large, much larger than the average MSW program size, which is 172. The rate at which these programs admitted students who had been Pell eligible as undergrads varies widely. Pell eligibility typically stands as a proxy of low Socio-Economic Status. It’s a less ideal proxy at the graduate level, as Pell grants are not awarded at the graduate level, and students may be in a very different financial position (though unlikely). But as an indicator, Pell eligibility is still useful. Some large programs are admitting large numbers of Pell eligible students and leaving them with significant debt. For some programs such as Clark Atlanta University and Howard (both HBCUs), it is not surprising given the realities of racial economic disparity in this country. For others programs, it is surprising given that they don’t tend to admit many Pell eligible students. This is true of many of the rest of the schools on the list, but especially USC. One view is that by admitting these students these programs are increasing access, but the alternate view is that granting access but saddling students with debt is not a meaningful or ethical expansion of access.

It’s not necessarily the case that admitting a high percentage of Pell eligible students or admitting Pell eligible students and having relatively high tuition necessarily leads to high student debt as the data below show. 

Median debt load, program cost and Pell-eligible enrollment for institutions with lower debt loads

Is there something in the marketing and recruitment of the programs in the first table with high debt that, in search of such large numbers, pushes the enrollment of students who cannot easily afford that particular program? Remember the debt data combine on-campus and online programs so it’s not simply OPMs that are driving this. 

The trend of admitting large numbers of students made of up a high percentage of Pell-eligible students is not confined to schools using OPMs. It appears that the student debt levels with MSW programs has something more to do with schools themselves, although OPMs with their particular skill and approach to marketing may be able to supercharge the programs. In some cases, it is the schools themselves, in some cases it may be the school-OPM dynamic. 


Looking at MSW data, it is not apparent that simply working with an OPM inevitably leads to increased student debt levels. I believe that student debt is unfortunately endemic to our higher ed system in the US – it reaches problematic levels when students who cannot easily afford expensive programs are recruited into such programs in large numbers. I support the US Department of Education for looking at debt levels, but there is no easy fix for this problem. As the political theorist Judith Shklar used to say, “there are no right answers but there are quite a few wrong ones.” To really address the student debt issue, we need to understand how and why high levels happen rather than looking for simple ideological answers.

Stay tuned for more.

  1. Tuition at USC was recently reduced to $85,890, but in this chart and in the table below I am using the tuition rates of $115,120 for full time study that were in effect up until and including the 2021-2022 academic year as this best corresponds with the College Scorecard debt data which was last updated in September 2022. See and .

One Comment

  • Clay Shirky says:

    Phil, this is so interesting and helpful. You are doing the work that should have been part of the conversation for the last several years, when instead people trafficked in competing worldviews not backed by data.

    A couple of thoughts as you look for additional views of the data:

    1. Besides mixing in-person and online programs, one other confounding variable for Master’s debt is that living expenses are tied to the students’ locations, not the school’s location. So while tuition across various institutions is coordinated by prestige, students living in cheaper areas can take out smaller loans, unindexed to tuition. I think this just makes loan data noisier.
    2. The headlines about students who graduate with high debt often seem to assume that high debt equals high difficulties repaying. But while the art history student with $85,000 in debt is a standard member of the dramatis personae of this morality play, most of the people who default have loans of less than $5000. (They are often part of the ‘some college/no degree’ group left stranded by for-profit institutions.) The issue is the failure of their education to earn out, not the absolute cost of acquiring the degree.
    3. Meanwhile, high debt usually correlates with a professional degree that has high earnings potential. This makes the MSW an outlier; indebted social workers are indeed in a troubling spot, but extrapolating from that degree doesn’t explain many other kinds of professional degrees, whose lifetime earnings pay out handsomely, even after debt is taken into account.
    4. Dang USW is an outlier, which, on top of the MSW being an outlier, makes the “Take the USC online social work program as an example…” an even less useful case to reason about.