Georgetown University is dark blue. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is light blue. The University of Southern California is scarlet. Washington University in St. Louis is maroon.
2U, an e-learning technology company, has grown so quickly that it now occupies five floors of an office building in Landover. But to get into the right spirit, the offices on each floor are painted in the colors of the school on whose behalf that particular team of staffers works.
2U used to be called 2tor. In October, the name was changed to better reflect its mission.
“People got confused with the old name. They thought we were tutors,” says Chip Paucek, CEO of 2U, which partners with top-tier private and public universities to provide online programs.
2U partners with six schools at four universities to offer master’s-level degrees: nursing at Georgetown; business administration and public administration at North Carolina; education and social work at USC; and law at Washington University.
Paucek and John Katzman co-founded the Prince George’s County company in 2008. Both had extensive experience in the educational field. Katzman, now a 2U board member, founded the Princeton Review; Paucek was CEO of Hooked on Phonics.
Nowadays, it’s not unusual for a higher educational institution to offer an online degree. The problem is they aren’t necessarily good at it. They may not have the technology, skilled personnel, and/or money to create and maintain an online program, much less a package like 2U’s that attracts students in today’s competitive marketplace.
“We provide the technology and the services,” Paucek says from 2U’s executive office, located on the ground floor of the building. “We build courses [with our partners]. We provide student services. We manage portions of the program.”
The school handles admission decisions and tuition fees, however, and its professors do the teaching.
“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a great school because of its faculty,” Paucek offers as an example. “We connect them with students worldwide.”
College banners and a map of the globe hang on the walls at 2U. Plants and a large fish tank complete the décor. Paucek, 42, who lives in Annapolis, is a serial entrepreneur; 2U is his third start-up. He revs up his laptop to demonstrate its technology. The 2U platform can be accessed on any computer or mobile device.
He picks North Carolina, where, in fact, he himself is enrolled in an MBA program. Views of the campus fill the screen before the camera zooms in on buildings and classrooms.
A 2U crew filmed the scenes to give far-flung online students a feel for the local surroundings. Lively graphics offer course details. Then the star of the show, the professor, appears, teaching the class against a backdrop of students taking notes.
2U selects the disciplines based on market research. It then seeks a school with which to partner, looking for “top tier” institutions known for their academic ranking and reputation.
“You have to have the right partner,” Paucek says, meaning institutions that are willing to provide the same educational quality and to treat online and on-campus students equally. “Some schools don’t believe [in] that.”
Paucek estimates 2U spends $10 million per discipline to develop its program and a year-and-a-half to build each course. Staffers provide personal help to students via videoconferencing. For Georgetown’s nurse-midwife students, who are required to do a clinical practicum in a hospital, 2U secures local placements. (They do the same for USC’s education and social work students.)
The company also works with states to assure that the online degrees meet those states’ credentialing requirements. Thus far, 2U has worked with the state of Missouri on Georgetown’s nursing program, and with other states on USC’s degrees in education.