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Relearnit Reexamines online program management (OPM): An interview with Dr. Ronald Wagner

By Ali Carr-Chellman / January 2022

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Dr. Ronald Wagner, CEO of Relearnit, is an academic and instructional designer with exciting and strident views on what higher education could be, and he’s living that out through his mission-driven for-profit company, Relearnit.

Relearnit is a full-service online program management (OPM) company that launched in 2011, entering an already cluttered marketplace with competitors such as 2U/EdX, Academic Partnerships, and Everspring Partners. The core focus for Relearnit is in health and wellness education. Their goal is to have 10,000 concurrently enrolled students by December of 2027 making them equivalent to a mid-sized university.

Dr. Wagner’s background includes academic training at Southeastern Missouri State University, Eastern Kentucky University, and the University of Arkansas. He has focused his work on athletic training and kinesiology and was recruited to California University of Pennsylvania where he was appointed the Dean of the graduate school and oversaw the global online program in an interim appointment. He returned to the faculty and decided to develop Relearnit in 2008 with roots in learning management systems administration and a focus on Moodle. Relearnit developed a series of online trainings for fitness education companies throughout Japan using a blended model. Dr. Wagner was classically trained at Bloomsburg University as an instructional designer and worked with Quality Matters as a reviewer. As a leader, he has enjoined Relearnit to focus on the academic side of the development of online learning first because of his pedagogical background.

Relearnit has also attracted several talented experts including Dr. Charles Green, recently at eLearning Strategies and Solutions out of St. Louis, and Fritz Vandover recently at Macalester College in St. Paul. Both have experience with technology for learning. 

Dr. Wagner readily admits there are several competitors in the space, though few focus specifically on health sciences education. I asked him how he distinguishes Relearnit’s business from its competitors. Dr. Wagner was ready with a clear focus on how Relearnit is different:

First, the for-profit company is mission-driven. It is, in fact, a passion project for Dr. Wagner and those on his team. Their mission, simply, is to increase access to higher education and providing services to universities in a responsible, sustainable fashion.

Second, Relearnit hopes to create significantly less debt load for students. Dr. Wagner points out that simply granting access is not enough, it needs to be affordable. Such affordability is accomplished by bringing lower-cost programming to students around the U.S.  Dr. Wagner pointed to costs of revenue sharing among most competitors who typically charge between 60–80% of tuition dollars for OPM services. Dr. Wagner says these high OPM charges are a part of the reason for high tuition charges at many other online programs. Today, online learning has become a common part of many universities’ strategic plans, particularly to increase revenues. However, the investment needed to build an internal operation such as World Campus at Penn State or Arizona State Online is often too high to function sustainably, particularly for those universities who came late to the game of online learning. An online program manager (OPM) can solve this problem, but at a cost. Relearnit differentiates itself from its competitors by charging under 40% revenue share with fee-for-service options.

This makes Relearnit one of the lowest-cost OPM’s in the country. They are able to accomplish this by, as Dr. Wagner says, “adapting systems and processes that are efficient and nimble.” Relearnit has only 25 employees. Dr. Wagner suggests higher cost OPM’s are a source of higher online tuition as the cost of revenue sharing is often passed on to the students who enroll. Dr. Wagner extolls the virtues of Relearnit saying, “When we talk to partners, we stress being able to differentiate on affordability, thus Relearnit is priced right.”

Third, they focus on the academic side of universities, working with faculty and provosts rather than presidents as their entry point. Dr. Wagner says their ability to bring to market programs with a clear, demonstrated need in the workforce, defined as Academics First, is a clear differentiator. He says, “How that need is determined is based on occupational demand that we can see reflected in labor market trends, student demand—students are looking for it, a marketing feasibility study, geographic or regional need for the program and our Academics First approach.”  Dr. Wagner advocates for an institutional realignment to focus more on meeting current workplace demands. Unlike other OPMs, Relearnit believes they attack increased demand through the academic side of the house (versus the administrative side).

As an example, Dr. Wagner points to MBA programs. Bluntly stating there are too many online MBA programs currently, he says, “you couldn’t pay us to take on an MBA program right now.” Of these programs, Dr. Wagner says while students may be able to earn a degree, it isn’t likely to impact a graduate’s employability or ability to support their families. Relearnit focuses on the cost to market based on high needs. Dr. Wagner indicates the largest part of their marketing is digital and pricey, but far less pricey than trying to market an MBA in a crowded field. Therefore, Relearnit focuses on much less competitive markets. Dr. Wagner says Relearnit focuses on, “niche academic program offerings where we can grow enrollment, solve national and regional demands for degree conferrals, and student demand.”

With these three primary differentiators in mind, I plunged into more controversial topics with Dr. Wagner. Given that the focus is on access, affordability, and academic approaches to niche programs, I asked Dr. Wagner if he would deny that this amounts to cherry-picking the easiest programs to market, leaving universities with the more difficult programs to market. He agreed entirely that Relearnit (like all other OPMs in my view) does indeed cherry-pick the easiest programs, the ones with the highest likely rate of return due to high interest from students, demand from local or regional businesses, and high employment rates post-graduation. “Yes,” he said, “that’s exactly what it is. The work that we’re doing here will disrupt the higher education space hugely.” He said while faculty may not like to hear it, Relearnit is able to do this work in this way because “we know that higher education is a business.  Some faculty may cringe,” he continued, “but if cherry picking programs that meet the criteria we outline, if the outcome is to keep universities open and students succeeding, who will argue with that? Industry is asking for it, isn’t that our social responsibility? To solve workplace issues?” I hesitate to point out, however, that this takes place with a hefty price tag. While far less than competitors, should universities really be paying others to market already highly sought-after programming?

While Dr. Wagner’s assessment of the situation is certainly unusually honest, I pushed him a bit further. Having read a good deal about the merits of a liberal arts education [1, 2] and the high levels of employability among those students who broaden themselves rather than narrow down to more vocational training programs in college [3, 4], and even having written a bit about this myself [5, 6], I have as strident a view of the importance of a higher education landscape that includes philosophy, history, basic sciences, sociology, languages, and other humanities as Dr. Wagner has that universities need to serve the master of job training. As I advocated for the importance of humanities, he would counter with, “I don’t know how our economy runs if we don’t have productive citizens who are able to pay the bills and keep our economy going. We can be great humans and great citizens but if we don’t participate in the economy how do we move ahead? I fundamentally believe in, and one of my focuses is higher education as an ecosystem that allows for personal development.”

On this point, I believe Dr. Wagner and I will agree to disagree. For me, I am looking at the entirety of the higher education landscape, not just those programs that make money and are easy to market. Dr. Wagner likens the work Relearnit does to D1 athletic programs. He asks the question, “If it’s the OPM that allows a university to grow enrollment in vocational programs, if that allows the university to stay open, allows it to pay the bills, it’s like D1 athletics; football allows the university to pay for the rowing team.”  Dr. Wagner stands by the approach and the hope that it will dramatically alter the landscape of higher education. I would argue OPM’s already have had a significant impact through increasing vocational training, particularly for those who cannot afford a liberal arts education. But I fear that this is simply creating a two-tiered system in which those who have the money will experience a broadening, often residential university program while those who need to work full or part time to make the tuition bills may settle for more vocational online options. In the long run, research is showing that liberal arts graduates catch up and surpass their colleagues in engineering, business, health sciences, and other professional schools over time [3].

Recent reports of internally built support OPMs (World Campus, ASU Online, and many others) and regional collaborations across universities such as North Carolina’s Project  Kitty Hawk led me to ask Dr. Wagner his view of the for-profit industry in OPMs versus non-profit options like internal online teaching and learning arms that expand into the online learning space, or regional collaborations. Dr. Wagner would very much like to see that all OPMs are unnecessary. He said, unequivocally, “I would like to have the OPM industry not exist. We’d like to empower our partners and be no longer needed. It should be work that institutions should be able to do on their own.” However, he points out the current systems in higher education, which create bureaucracies that stretch out approvals for new programs from months to years, is one reason why current institutions need help from business. Dr. Wagner advocates for efficient, responsive, nimble curriculum making that can adjust to the needs of the workplace markets. Entrepreneurial wings within or without universities themselves can be very successful if they approach the work in a sustainable and responsive fashion. Dr. Wagner said, “I definitely do wish that OPMs didn’t need to exist because higher ed was already self-sufficient.”

Personally, I do not debate that our systems, particularly those in curriculum making have been less nimble and responsive to the workplace market over time, however, this is often the result of accreditation requirements or the faculty insisting on robust program offerings. Few would debate that these are essential elements of high-quality educational programming. Finding degree options that are already approved and slightly changing course by putting that program online might not quite rise to the level of business helping higher education, in my view.

I asked Dr. Wagner what he would like readers of eLearn Magazine to know about the work Relearnit is doing. He said, “It’s transformative, and results will put us on the map to influence how higher education is delivered in the future. Our first focus is accessibility, in order to have an accessible education, you need financial models that work and make sense with high levels of accountability.”

I applaud Relearnit and Dr. Wagner’s passion and hopes to change higher education. I appreciate deeply their interest in sustainable models of higher education that are accessible, affordable, and academically oriented. While I am still leery of seeing higher education as a vocational shop delivering on-time, on-brand training for workplace needs, and while I personally abhor the narrow definition of higher education as a business without acknowledging the broader societal implications of the industry of higher education, scholarship, service, and teaching, I do understand the potentials for what Dr. Wagner is laying out and am very happy to see a company who is interested in cutting student debt through a model of revenue sharing that works for universities, students and the for-profit OPMs. I agree with Dr. Wagner that lower-priced OPM revenue sharing models are likely to create far less student debt load, which is an important goal for us all.

OPMs fill an important role in the current e-learning higher education industry landscape. They allow many smaller players to join the online revolution later than the pioneers that started this movement well prior to the impact of the pandemic. Many universities who had not considered online learning found themselves in the middle of an online environment during the pandemic, like it or not. However, as I’ve written before the online courses that resulted from the quick pivot in 2020 were not carefully planned or representative of the best online practices the field has to offer. OPMs are capable of helping to transition new programs that showed some initial promise during the pandemic into full-blown online programming. Relearnit’s goals to do so at a better revenue-sharing price point than other OPMs is not only admirable, it is essential, and, I believe, will find any number of footholds across the university enterprise. While we may debate the finer points of impact on the industry of cherry picking the easiest programs to market, they do also serve workplace needs in a clear and demonstrable fashion. In the final summation, perhaps the primary thing for university faculty and staff in the online development space to debate is the impact of the incursion of OPMs into the industry as a whole. This question is yet to be answered and will be of keen interest in the next few years.

Finally, if I may say so, I am grateful for the time Dr. Wagner shared with me. Not only was his honest appraisal of the pros and cons refreshingly candid, but his passion and care for the higher education enterprise and the students who receive an education across the industry’s many players were also clear. It was an engaging and fun conversation.


[1] Dix, W. A liberal arts degree is more important than ever. Forbes. November 16, 2016.

[2] McAvoy, P., Campbell, D. and Hess, D. The relationship between a liberal arts education and democratic outcomes. Andrew Mellon Foundation, Jan. 2019.

[3] Leckrone, B. When it comes to future earnings, Liberal-arts grads might get the last laugh. The Chronicle of Higher Education. January 14, 2020.

[4] Deming, D. In the salary race, engineers sprint, but English majors endure. The New York Times. September 20, 2019.   

[5] Carr-Chellman, A.A. Let’s stop confusing what just happened with true online learning. Times Higher Education. June 9, 2021.

[6] Carr-Chellman, D. J., Carr-Chellman, A.A., and Kroth, M. (2021). Classes need less focus on employability and more on profound learning. Times Higher Education. November 25, 2021.

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