I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Laments over edX deal — and new warnings about online-program managers.

Of all the commentary I saw in the wake of last week’s news that 2U will buy edX for $800 million, what stood out to me most were sharp words from an early academic partner of the nonprofit MOOC venture. “EdX’s sale will not be widely mourned,” wrote Steven Mintz, because it never got close to achieving all it said it would when it started out.

“EdX had promised to make high-quality courses by the best professors in the world available globally for free. It was to drive technological and pedagogical innovations in online education. It was to create an international consortium of educational researchers and innovators. Spoiler alert: It didn’t,” Mintz wrote on LinkedIn.

“Nothing illustrates that disappointment better than edX’s pandemic response. Did it take advantage of its Rolodex and develop high-quality online courses targeted at high-school students — freeing classroom teachers to provide mentoring and student support?” said Mintz. “I’m afraid not.”

Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin who was also the founding director of the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning. His edX roots run deep. The year it began — in 2012, with a $60-million investment from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — he negotiated his system’s charter membership in the edX consortium.

Last week I said that many of the professors and institutions that had collaborated with edX over the years would be eager to hear what was coming next. Mintz is arguing that they should join Harvard and MIT in setting the “direction, priorities, and agenda” of the new nonprofit that will get the $800 million. “Those of us who invested faculty time, institutional energy, campus resources, yes, and money” into edX deserve a say, Mintz argued. “That’s the absolute least these institutions can do, given the immense profit edX has generated.”

The 2U deal will also fuel the growing business of online-program managers, or OPMs. That could heighten concerns that colleges’ dealings with OPMs — and accreditors’ laissez-faire stance — pose a risk. “The hands-off approach leaves institutions facing a fast-growing industry with minimal support and little oversight,” says a new report from the Century Foundation.

Don’t be put off by the title of the report, which came out before the 2U deal was announced. While “Outsourcing Online Higher Ed: A Guide for Accreditors” suggests that it’s for, well, accreditors, the report offers plenty of sound advice for federal and state policy makers, college administrators, trustees, and faculty leaders. And the advice is useful even for those who don’t share the authors’ view that OPMs represent “the shadowy underbelly of the higher-education sector.” (Well, at least you know where they’re coming from.) I especially appreciate the suggestions to scrutinize enrollment-growth projections and marketing materials, not to mention a color-coded guide to gauging OPM risk.

How mentoring pays off, and not just for the mentees.

If ever there were a year that students could benefit from the personal support and guidance of a peer or recent grad, 2020 was probably it. So I was hardly surprised to learn that a venture called Mentor Collective has more than doubled its college clients, to 130, since the start of the pandemic. More striking to me was the enthusiasm the company saw from its mentors, despite the isolation and other difficulties they, too, were facing.

Mentor Collective “recruited more mentors than we ever thought possible,” its co-founder and chief executive, Jackson Boyar, told me when we spoke recently for the latest episode of my Innovation That Matters podcast series. “People wanted to give back. And they knew the challenges others were going through.”

The expansion — which yielded some 125,000 mentoring relationships — was to Boyar just further evidence for one of the premises of his seven-year-old company: Creating a culture of mentorship generates benefits for the mentors as well as the mentees. “It feels good to be a mentor,” Boyar told me. “It shows you what you know.” And he noted that “it’s often the students who felt in some way disenfranchised or disillusioned with their college experience who want to give back the most.”

Mentor Collective’s focus on those reciprocal benefits was one factor that intrigued me. Well, that and the business model: Colleges pay the company to recruit and train its students and recent alumni as mentors, and connect them with mentees (most mentors are volunteers, but some are paid by the colleges). So success depends a lot on whether mentors believe their efforts are worthwhile — for them, too. That’s why Boyar considers formal training for mentors vital — in 2020 it included additional components on “courageous conversations” about race and diversity — and why the company is seeking certification for its training by the University of New Mexico’s Mentoring Institute.

Effective mentoring can have benefits for institutions, too. Mentor Collective’s early research has found that just three meaningful interactions between a mentor and a mentee can improve retention by 4 percent. I did an on-air double take when I heard that, but Boyar says that’s what the data show.

Innovation That Matters is a series about change makers working to improve equity in higher education, and other founders I’ve interviewed explained how personal experiences guided their work. Boyar was drawn to mentoring by observation. After studying abroad, in China, he saw that many international students at his university in the United States seemed cut off from most of campus life, except the few classmates who spoke their language. He gradually realized that many first-generation college students were also “feeling like a stranger in a strange land” in college.

I’m still trying to figure out what that says about the state of American higher education. Maybe you are, too. In the meantime, please check out the podcast, all episodes of which can be found here or on the podcast apps of your choice.

Join me and four panelists on Tuesday to discuss helping adult students navigate the post-pandemic economy.

The economic insecurity of the pandemic — with its school closures and burdens of caregiving — has been particularly hard on adult learners and prospective students wary of enrolling. Come hear and ask questions about how best to support them in the second of a two-part virtual-event series on post-pandemic higher ed and employers.

In the first discussion (available on demand here), we focused on how interdisciplinary experiences can prepare traditional-age students to kick off their careers. Next week we’ll shift the emphasis to older students trying to advance in a rapidly changing economy. Joining me again will be Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation, plus Janine A. Davidson, president of Metropolitan State University of Denver; Felisha Mason, a 2020 graduate of the University of Memphis and a program director at the Boys & Girls Club of the Hatchie River Region; and David Ong, senior director of talent acquisition at Maximus Inc. Register here to watch and ask questions live, on July 13, at 2 p.m. Eastern time, or view later on demand.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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