Though online universities have opened access to higher education, they have taken knocks for subpar academic quality. Jeremy Johnson, co-founder and chief marketing officer of online education startup 2tor, wants to reverse that.
Ironically, Johnson, 28, is a college dropout. As a junior at Princeton, he founded Zandigo, a social network where high school students could find information on college admissions. It was acquired by Zinch in 2007. While mulling over the decision to work on Zandigo full-time, he contacted John Katzman, the founder of the Princeton Review. Despite going against Katzman’s advice to finish college, Johnson kept in touch, often exchanging ideas to improve higher education. Katzman brought Chip Paucek, the former CEO of Hooked on Phonics, into the discussion, and the three started 2tor in 2008.
2tor launched its first program, a master of arts in teaching with USC’s Rossier School of Education, in fall 2008. Since its launch, USC’s program has expanded from 75 on-campus students to 1,500 worldwide. Its rankings have increased, too: in just one year, the program jumped from 38th to 14th in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings. Since then, 2tor has launched graduate programs in public affairs and business administration with UNC-Chapel Hill, social work with USC, and nursing with Georgetown. Earlier this year, 2tor announced a partnership with Washington University of St. Louis for a masters of law program aimed at international students.
The company’s first partnership didn’t come easily. “It started off with us begging,” Johnson says. But 2tor’s programs have matched their on-campus counterparts in graduation and job placement rates. USC’s Rossier, for instance, achieved a 100% job placement rate for its first online class. Lately, 2tor has universities lining up for potential partnerships, though the company only intends to launch two to three new programs a year. Investors are on board, too: the company has raised $96 million.
2tor keeps the academic bar high by maintaining its partners’ selective admission standards. In fact, the company stays out of the process, in order to eliminate any conflict of interest. But 2tor does consult with universities on instructional design. Rather than giving static lectures, instructors film high-quality videos to demonstrate concepts. Students watch those videos before class, and then, in live, small-group sessions, discuss them with instructors.
Because of that interactive approach, Johnson says, online students feel just as connected to their university as those on campus. To illustrate this point, he tells a story about USC’s first class of online graduates. “We had a higher percentage of online students fly to USC to walk in graduation than offline students,” Johnson says. “For me, what that shows is that they fully understand that they’re Trojans. That’s part of what makes a quality academic experience.”