2U, a SaaS platform that helps non-profits and colleges run online universities, plans to acquire Harvard and MIT-founded edX for a deal north of $600 million, according to multiple sources. 2U did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and its unclear if this is an all-cash deal.
The deal gives 2U, a company that filed to go public in 2014 and continues to be one of the rare U.S. edtech companies listed on the stock market, a new wave of collaboratively-built content to its software. 2U’s last big acquisition was in 2019, when it paid $750 million to acquire Trilogy education, a company that builds in-person and online bootcamps in collaboration with universities.
EdX was founded in 2012 amid a crop of massive open online course (MOOC) offerings, including Udacity and Coursera. The company, set up as a non-profit, had an alluring promise upon launch: it would help anyone in the world take a Harvard or MIT class, for free. The institutions, of course, had thrown in a cumulative $60 million in donations into edX to keep the operation free. Its own launch came weeks after Coursera, now a public company, announced that Princeton, Stanford, UPenn, and the University of Michigan would host courses on its own online learning platform.
Today, edX, led by president and professor Anant Agarwal, hosts over 3,000 courses led by 15,000 instructors and used by 35 million users. Open edX, the platform’s open source platform, is used by 2,400 learning sites worldwide, according to the organization’s website.
EdX will turn into a public benefit corporation as part of this transaction. Per sources, all profits from the transaction will go into another non-profit managed by Harvard and MIT. It’s unclear if all proceeds of the transaction will turn to this non-profit, which will be dedicated to equitable learning, or just a portion.
Part of this transaction is colored by the fact that edX has been transparent with its own financial woes and journey to becoming a self-sustaining business. MIT Provost Rafael Reif had hinted at eventual revenue generation the program first launched, saying in 2012 that “the drive is not to make money..that said, we intend to find a way to support those activities. There are several approaches we are considering, and we don’t want this project to become a drain on the budgets of MIT or Harvard.”
In 2018, the same fiscal year it had $37 million in revenue, edX introduced a support fee, alongside its ongoing offering that asks students to pay for a verified certification upon course completion. In announcement, the company wrote that “we believe that we need to move toward a financial model that allows edX and our partners to achieve sustainability and we acknowledge that means moving away from our current model of offering virtually everything for free.”
Now, it seems as though the new transaction and edX’s choice to turn into a public benefit corporation might become the financial model that it itself was looking for. 2U has committed to continuing its edX’s free coursework for at least five years, sources say. After that, the look and access to edX might shift away from that original conception.