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Our Bold Vision for the Future: From Day One to 2021

Written by Christopher "Chip" Paucek on Aug 9, 2021

Related content: Leadership, Digital Education

When the deal closes, 2U and edX will reach over 50 million learners, serve more than 230 partners, and offer over 3,500 digital programs on the world's most comprehensive free-to-degree online education marketplace.

Editor’s Note: This is an adaptation of what 2U’s Co-Founder and CEO Chip Paucek shared on the Second Quarter 2021 earnings call that took place on Thursday, July 29, 2021.

2U has always had a bold vision for the future. We started this company in 2008 to create the world’s best online education. And we’ve been defying the odds ever since.

Back then, high-quality online education wasn’t a thing. People said online education was bad. It couldn’t be great. It couldn’t create the same outcomes. The same relationships. The same quality.

Nearly a decade and a half later, our 550+ programs have become industry-leading examples of online education done right, at scale, helping transform the lives of over 350,000 people. All while delivering great outcomes and increasing retention and graduation rates. You see this impact in our Gallup research—97% of students in 2U-powered degree programs report having positive career outcomes, and 92% would do it all over again.

The Evolution of 2U

At every step along our journey, 2U has been growing and evolving. We got very good at what we do. We scaled our proprietary, machine learning-based, per-program marketing engine to find not just any student, but the right student. We figured out clinical placements at scale. And we built 185+ degree offerings.

As we saw the market evolve and the demand for lifelong learning increase, we recognized that nonprofit universities needed to move beyond the degree. So we made a strategic acquisition and entered the executive education space with short courses.

And, more recently, as reskilling and upskilling have become a worldwide imperative, our boot camp acquisition has established us as the largest provider of university-led tech skills training in the US. In the past 12 months alone, our partners’ boot camps have reached more than 23,000 students and provided over 30,000 free job referrals, all while creating new pathways for historically underrepresented communities to enter the tech industry.

Our journey then continued with a move into the largest area of higher education: undergrad. We launched Simmons University undergrad and built their entire campus and online experience—a first for 2U. We launched the London School of Economics undergrad, scaling it to one of our largest degree programs. And most recently, we helped Morehouse College bring its “Beyond Borders” vision to life by launching its first online degrees, which are now becoming some of the fastest-growing programs in our history.

We also quietly started building out an enterprise channel—first with our short courses, then with our boot camps, including our groundbreaking partnership program with Netflix.

We did all of this without establishing 2U as a consumer brand. As a result, people often don’t fully appreciate our scale, reach, and impact. They don’t aggregate our activity around the 2U brand.

But what matters is that we’re doing this right. The right intentions, the right motivations, and most importantly, the right outcomes. We are delivering on our mission to eliminate the back row in higher education.

Of course, during our long journey, the world around us also continued to evolve.

MOOCs Take Center Stage

Back in 2012, the MOOC revolution happened. MOOC platform companies were born and caught lightning in a bottle. They were founded to bring access to the world's best education to the masses. There were two big companies in the MOOC story. They both generated worldwide attention. A worldwide following. A worldwide base of learners. They both created additional pathways for people around the globe to get educated.

And then, in 2020, COVID happened—taking digital transformation from a nice to have to a strategic imperative for all of higher education, overnight. We believe the pandemic reinforced to the world, and higher education, the value of 2U’s model and our approach to building sustainable, high-quality online education. It also drove millions of additional learners to the MOOC platforms. edX, the leading nonprofit MOOC platform, alone added millions of new learners and signed up nearly 1,000 universities to its edX for Campus offering, allowing schools worldwide to teach edX courses on campus.

When Anant Argawal, the founder and CEO of edX, and I started talking about what we could do together, we recognized the transformational moment happening in higher education. And we saw a clear vision for creating greater access to affordable, high-quality online education built on a shared alignment around our missions. And we’re turning that vision into reality.

An Industry-Redefining Combination

When the deal closes, we’ll have a company with all the necessary ingredients to drive the digital transformation of higher education—a powerhouse global consumer brand combined with the most comprehensive and complementary set of free to degree offerings, and an unmatched bundle of tech-enabled services.

2U and edX are perfectly fitting puzzle pieces, but more than that, together, we believe we will accelerate the opportunity, the scale, and most importantly, the impact. edX will be the fuel that helps supercharge our company—and will supercharge our impact. And yes, it will redefine 2U and the industry. Here’s how:

  • edX is a massive global brand—a top-five education brand. Yes, as a leading education platform, it has huge traffic. But in my opinion, the word "brand" is about relationships more than anything else. With the addition of edX, we will have a relationship with anyone in the world who wants to learn. They will become part of 2U’s ecosystem.
  • edX creates network effects. Those network effects will be applied to 2U, a business that today knows how to digitally transform a university, and offers a complete suite of services, products, and competencies for the great university to thrive.
  • 2U can substantially increase the free course portfolio. This will create more learning and thus more opportunities to introduce learners to our university partners’ other programs across the broadest spectrum of offerings in the industry.
  • edX will create a flywheel in our enterprise business. More courses means more learners means more companies means more jobs for students, which means a bigger, better business opportunity.
  • edX will create a flywheel in our campus ambitions. More courses means more campuses utilizing our courses for their students, which means more learners, which means more opportunities for our partners, including both existing edX and 2U partners.
  • edX will create an incredible opportunity to not only deploy Open edX throughout our platform, but also to create even higher quality learning opportunities. Together with Harvard, MIT, and our partner institutions, we will be able to develop platform features and functionality that drive pedagogical improvements and innovations that improve student outcomes.
  • edX will create new product categories for 2U. MicroBachelors and MicroMasters and disruptively priced master’s programs in tech, data, and business. These are innovative and affordable ways to offer greater access to higher education, and they are particularly appropriate for emerging economies and learners aboard.
  • edX will accelerate our international ambitions. Today, while massive in the US, edX is even bigger abroad. As one example, edX has almost the same learners and traffic from India as the US. Our localization efforts will help us more efficiently grow the short course business internationally.
  • edX will create a strategically valuable increase in our partner base. We’ll grow from 84 to 226 partners, which includes many of the world's best companies like IBM, Google, and AWS.

Finally, as I said before but is worth repeating, edX will make us a global consumer brand, overnight.

Our Future, Together

Following the closing of the edX transaction, we believe that no company will be better positioned than 2U, on a worldwide basis, to lead the digital transformation of higher education. We will bring a complete approach—and one built on the backs of hard work of 14 years to create a full system for true digital transformation.

We are aligned in this effort with the great institutions of Harvard, MIT, the edX partner community, and the 2U partner community. Purpose and mission are more important than tax status. In fact, our ability to drive innovation and efficiency will help provide a competitive advantage to great nonprofit universities that drive the best outcomes for students. Mission. Alignment. Matters.

This deal signals a new era in a clear race. While the space race between Branson and Bezos has certainly captured everyone’s attention, this race is about changing this world.

Who Will Become the Primary Consumer Learning Platform of the Next 20 Years?

We believe our ability to serve great universities to scale their global reach and impact, across every possible product offering, with a comprehensive and proven approach to do it, will solidify us as that partner and redefine what it takes to win in the market.

We have built an unmatched, world-class, machine learning marketing system, putting universities at the center. We have built a world-class, outcomes-driven student engagement and placement system. We’re building a world-class career engagement network. With edX, we will layer on top of that their worldwide brand, products, and marketplace, and 40 million learners.

Learners, faculty, universities, and employers are all coming together on our platform because quality matters, the approach matters, and we have the portfolio of tech, services, and products to deliver high-quality outcomes at scale.

In this race, I like our odds.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.