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Analyzing the return on investment for online education

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Though higher education has historically been a reliable economic engine for individuals and the economy, college insiders have long failed to convey the industry’s value to students, parents, employers and policy makers who question the investment, Kathleen Ives and Deborah Seymour argue in their new book, Using ROI for Strategic Planning of Online Education. Online learning has potential to provide access and optimal course pacing and content to students with time, geographic or medical constraints. But many continue to view it with a critical eye.

At the same time, the shift from emergency remote teaching in the early pandemic has morphed into innovation and investment in online teaching and learning. Many have since discovered an interest in understanding online learning’s return on investment.

Inside Higher Ed recently asked Ives and Seymour about why analyzing return on investment is uncomfortable for many in higher education, the gap between students’ and college leaders’ understanding of return on investment, and how ed-tech companies are bringing the notion of return on investment into focus for college leaders. What follows is an edited and condensed version of this email conversation.

Q: Kathleen, you argue that implementing a return-on-investment analysis in online higher education will entail making significant cultural, policy and processes changes. What are some of these changes that need to happen, and how will we recognize progress?

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Ives: Historically, colleges have seen themselves as mission-driven, which means that measuring return on investment can be culturally uncomfortable. Colleges may fear that a business perspective could undermine their values and turn them into degree mills. At the same time, colleges are facing increased competition from both inside and outside of academe. Reversing this only-mission-driven mind-set will require a cultural shift in which students are treated as customers. Satisfying the customer is critical to survival, or they will go elsewhere.

As higher education costs and student debt mount, policy makers and others are questioning higher education’s role in producing a workforce needed to sustain the economy. At the same time, college enrollments are declining, state governments are offering less support and employers are skeptical that college graduates possess appropriate skill sets. Policy makers could help colleges protect students, promote access and improve both institutional and student return on investment, without introducing regulations that curb innovation, according to the presidents interviewed in our book.

Colleges are navigating complex technological environments with limited resources. They typically have neither the operational infrastructure nor the embedded skill sets to institutionalize return on investment. By reviewing and adapting return-on-investment methodologies to inform decision-making, online college leaders can evaluate initiatives and work toward achieving their financial and social goals.

Online colleges will see progress when they adopt a return-on-investment mind-set. Such a mind-set may be new for many, and some may not be used to digesting or even requesting such analysis. But this book’s contributors argue that they should be brought along on the journey. To make return on investment a cornerstone of initiatives going forward, they need trainings on best practices and terminology. A return-on-investment mind-set will increase engagement in the decision-making process and make it easier for all to see its impact.

Q: A chapter in your book by Laurie Hillstock suggests that students and college leaders may have different perspectives on return on investment for online learning. Students consider a range of complex factors—including cost, type of degree, faculty-to-student ratios, connections with classmates, job placement and starting salaries. Meanwhile, many college leaders view online course delivery primarily as a means for increasing access to higher education. What steps can leaders take today to help bridge this gap?

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A: As a start, leaders can acknowledge that learners differ in many ways. One universal method may not close the gap. Capturing and acting on students’ direct feedback will help. To do this, colleges need to be intentional about building trust and helping students feel heard. Formative assessments that, for example, request feedback may be more effective than online surveys.

Some students may feel more comfortable sharing with faculty, staff, peer mentors or other students than with college leaders. In such cases, be transparent with those with whom students feel most comfortable connecting. Then look for ways to work with and through them to capture authentic student feedback.

Remember, don’t just collect student feedback. Be intentional about acting on the feedback. Share updates with students as well. Building authentic relationships takes time but is necessary for student success.

Q: Deborah, you note that innovative investors and entrepreneurial ventures—such as ed-tech companies, online program managers, venture capital firms and pathway programs—seek to stake a claim in the online higher education ecosystem. How have these institutions and companies brought the notion of return on investment into focus for college leaders and students?

Seymour: More and more, employers are hiring candidates for their technical skill sets rather than for their ability to communicate. Boot-camp training programs at Apple, Microsoft, Google and others, as well as pathway programs, focus on the competencies and skills employers say are necessary to fill existing technical skills gaps. Many students learn to code to get a job instead of pursuing a two- or four-year degree.

As a result, many colleges have been forced to look at their strategy and balance sheets differently. What’s the return on investment for an individual who chooses a degree over technical skills training? That question can no longer be ignored.

Q: The collection of articles in your book makes a strong case that leaders should pay more attention to return-on-investment analysis in online education. But one of the articles by David Schejbal argues that “higher education institutions would be well served to resist the urge to fit online education into a narrow return-on-investment box to justify its worth.” Does a holistic, online higher ed return-on-investment spreadsheet exist that can measure nonfinancial benefits such as an educated populace, research, individual enrichment and community improvement?

A: To our knowledge, no actual spreadsheet exists. But David Schejbal explains why college access is important beyond employment rates and the economy. When more people are educated beyond the secondary level, citizens are more active in public life, crime rates are lower and life expectancy increases.

When a college wishes to offer an online program, return-on-investment planning includes market research to determine concrete, monetary benefits to both the student and the institution. But colleges will also want to align their online programs with their social missions. (This is alluded to in the chapter by Leah Matthews on online education and accreditation.) That means social factors in a campus-based program in, say, nursing, must be included in online nursing programs, as well.

Q: What did you learn about return on investment for online learning from putting together this book that you did not fully understand before you started?

Seymour: When a face-to-face course is originally developed, many colleges do not consider the cost of converting it to an online course that is compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. In some cases, these conversion costs are higher than the original cost of development. Also, these costs are often not included in the course design nor the prices that online program managers charge when developing courses for colleges. That means the risk of noncompliance is passed along to the institution. Hidden costs like these on an institution’s balance sheet can produce significant opportunity costs.

Online programs face many external challenges, including doubt about their worth. College leaders may have more success by first addressing their institution’s internal challenges. To do this, they should engage strategy and planning experts to ensure that oversights do not threaten program continuity.

Ives: Return on investment in online higher education has moved beyond the singular metric of student earning potential. It is not solely or even necessarily a performance measure gauging investment efficiency as typically measured by corporations, investors and entrepreneurs. Also, what works for one college’s mission and vision may not work for another institution.

Many methodologies are available to assess return on investment, and many institutional leaders are serious about measuring value as compared to cost, specifically with regard to students and institutional mission. Many are pursuing nuanced return-on-investment analyses, depending on their definitions of success.

Many of the presidents told us the pandemic fast-forwarded some plans to optimize their return-on-investment initiatives. As Keith Miller, president of Greenville Technical College, put it, “ROI may even increase because we have learned so much.”

 

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Zacks Investment Ideas feature highlights: Alphabet, Tesla, Shopify, Amazon and Palo Alto

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For Immediate Release

Chicago, IL – February 2, 2023 – Today, Zacks Investment Ideas feature highlights Alphabet GOOGL, Tesla TSLA, Shopify SHOP, Amazon AMZN and Palo Alto Networks PANW.

Which of These Stocks Has Been the Best Buy, Post-Split?

Stock splits have been a regular occurrence in the market over the last several years, with many companies aiming to boost liquidity within shares and knock down barriers for potential investors.

Of course, it’s important to remember that a split doesn’t directly impact a company’s financial standing or performance.

In 2022, several companies performed splits, including Alphabet, Tesla, Shopify, Amazon and Palo Alto Networks. Below is a chart illustrating the performance of all five stocks over the last year, with the S&P 500 blended in as a benchmark.

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As we can see, PANW shares have been the best performers over the last year, the only to outperform the general market.

However, which has turned in a better performance post-split? Let’s take a closer look.

Tesla

We’re all familiar with Tesla, which has revolutionized the EV (electric vehicle) industry. It’s been one of the best-performing stocks over the last decade, quickly becoming a favorite among investors.

Earlier in June of 2022, the mega-popular EV manufacturer announced that its board approved a three-for-one stock split; shares began trading on a split-adjusted basis on August 25th, 2022.

Since the split, Tesla shares have lost roughly 40% in value, widely underperforming relative to the S&P 500.

Palo Alto Networks

Palo Alto Networks offers network security solutions to enterprises, service providers, and government entities worldwide.

PANW’s three-for-one stock split in mid-September seemingly flew under the radar. The company’s shares started trading on a split-adjusted basis on September 14th, 2022.

Following the split, PANW shares have struggled to gain traction, down roughly 15% compared to the S&P 500’s 3.3% gain.

Shopify

Shopify provides a multi-tenant, cloud-based, multi-channel e-commerce platform for small and medium-sized businesses.

SHOP shares started trading on a split-adjusted basis on June 29th, 2022; the company performed a 10-for-1 split.

Impressively, Shopify shares have soared for a 50% gain since the split, crushing the general market’s performance.

Alphabet

Alphabet has evolved from primarily being a search engine into a company with operations in cloud computing, ad-based video and music streaming, autonomous vehicles, and more.

Last February, the tech titan announced a 20-for-1 split, and investors cheered on the news – GOOGL shares climbed 7% the day following the announcement. Shares started trading on a split-adjusted basis on July 18th, 2022.

Alphabet shares have sailed through challenging waters since the split, down 10% and lagging behind the S&P 500.

Amazon

Amazon has evolved into an e-commerce giant with global operations. The company also enjoys a dominant position within the cloud computing space with its Amazon Web Services (AWS) operations.

AMZN’s 20-for-1 split was a bit of a surprise, as it was the company’s first split since 1999. Shares started trading on a split-adjusted basis on June 6th, 2022.

Following the split, Amazon shares have lost roughly 18% in value, well off the general market’s performance.

Bottom Line

Stock splits are typically exciting announcements that investors can receive, with companies aiming to boost liquidity within shares.

Interestingly enough, only Shopify shares reside in the green post-split of the five listed.

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Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Inherent in any investment is the potential for loss. This material is being provided for informational purposes only and nothing herein constitutes investment, legal, accounting or tax advice, or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold a security. No recommendation or advice is being given as to whether any investment is suitable for a particular investor. It should not be assumed that any investments in securities, companies, sectors or markets identified and described were or will be profitable. All information is current as of the date of herein and is subject to change without notice. Any views or opinions expressed may not reflect those of the firm as a whole. Zacks Investment Research does not engage in investment banking, market making or asset management activities of any securities. These returns are from hypothetical portfolios consisting of stocks with Zacks Rank = 1 that were rebalanced monthly with zero transaction costs. These are not the returns of actual portfolios of stocks. The S&P 500 is an unmanaged index. Visit https://www.zacks.com/performance for information about the performance numbers displayed in this press release.

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$13 million investment in Campbellford Memorial Hospital

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The Campbellford Memorial Hospital will be receiving a $13 million investment from the Ontario Government to address infrastructure concerns.

The announcement was made at the hospital by Northumberland—Peterborough South MPP David Piccini.

The $13 million is broken down as follows:

  • $9,639,900 will be going to CMH as one-time capital funding to address the HVAC and generator
  • $1,874,929 for reimbursement of CMH’s COVID-19-related capital expenses
  • $771,797 in COVID-19 incremental operating funding
  • up to $600,000 in one-time funding to support the hospital’s in-year financial and operating pressures
  • $163,600 in pandemic prevention and containment funding
  • $81,132 through the Health Infrastructure Renewal Fund
  • $46,884 in health human resources funding.

Interim President and CEO Eric Hanna welcomed the news, saying much needs to be done about the HVAC and generator.

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At the announcement, Hanna spoke of the issues with the generator.

“I’ve got the wee little generator up at the lake and then I’m thinking well, everything should be going well at the hospital,” Hanna told the audience in attendance.

“You get a call from the person in charge who says, ‘Guess what Eric? Generator didn’t start. Oh, so what does that mean? There’s no power in the hospital.’  That’s happened a couple of times in the past year and the generator is over 30 years old.”

Hanna says the solution was not as easy as replacing the generator.

“You can go buy the generator and that may be about a million dollars. But then when we found out afterwards, we came to hook up the new generator to the electrical distribution system and said it won’t work with that because your electrical distribution system is 1956. You can’t plug this generator into that. So now we’re putting close to $5 million into a whole electrical distribution system so the generator will work. It’s part of that ongoing thing and that’s why these costs continue to go up.”

The HVAC system was also something addressed by Hanna.

“It’s a contract close to $7 million to replace that. This wing, for example. There’s no fresh air in this wing. It hasn’t worked in here for 15 years. So now this is administrative areas and the concern was that in some of the patient carriers, it wasn’t working either.  So – having those discussions with David (Piccini) and saying what we have to do to correct this.”

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Chile’s Enap Set to Slash Debt Burden That Weighed on Investment

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(Bloomberg) — Enap, Chile’s state oil and gas company, plans to use near-record earnings to slash its debt burden, while increasing investment in its refineries and in exploration and production.

The company aims to reduce its debt load to about $3 billion “medium term” from the current $4.3 billion, Chief Executive Officer Julio Friedmann said in an interview. Plans include a bond sale in the first half of this year to refinance some securities.

The improved financial position — with 2022 profit surging to $575 million — comes after Enap’s oil and gas operations in Egypt, Ecuador and Argentina got a boost from high crude prices, while healthy international refining margins benefited plants in Chile. Those trends are expected to extend into this year and next, enabling the company to pre-pay some short-term obligations. About half of the current debt burden matures in the next three years.

“We are going to issue bonds,” the MIT-trained executive said Wednesday from the Aconcagua refinery in central Chile. “We are closely evaluating the local and international markets.”

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At the same time, Friedmann, who took the reins at Enap in November, plans to increase capital expenditure to about $700 million this year from $550 million last year.

The increase comes after underinvestment in the past few years because of Covid restrictions and the heavy debt load. Spending will focus on making treatment processes cleaner and upgrading infrastructure, as well as a more aggressive approach to increasing gas reserves in the far south of the country, he said.

Gas Markets

Enap plans to expand in both liquefied petroleum gas and natural gas markets in Chile, focusing on the wholesale business and eventually selling directly to large-scale consumers such as mines. Organizational changes to enable the expansion will be announced soon. There are no plans to enter the final distribution business, Friedmann said. The company wants to supply more gas to southern cities as a way of replacing dirtier fuels such as wood and diesel.

Enap and its partners are also preparing pipelines and a refinery near Concepcion to start receiving crude from Argentina’s Neuquen basin sometime this year in an arrangement that could supply as much as 30% of its needs.

While there’s plenty of potential do collaborate more with energy-rich Argentina, particularly in the Magallanes area, that would require greater long-term visibility on supplies from the neighboring country, Friedmann said.

He sees a role for Enap in the development of green hydrogen in Chile. It’s in talks with three companies to enable its facilities in Magallanes to be used to receive all the wind turbines, electrolyzers and other equipment that will be needed to make the clean fuel. Enap is also evaluating its own small pilot plants and will consider whether to take up options to enter other green hydrogen projects as an equity partner.

While the company will maintain its focus on meeting rising demand for traditional fuels, it anticipates new regulation that will require lower emissions. It’s also looking closely at clean-fuel options for aviation, Friedmann said.

(Adds clean fuel plans in last paragraph. I previous version corrected spelling of CEO’s surname.)

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