Your online college course may be run by a for-profit company. How to spot the difference.

 Colleges are turning to tech companies to manage online classes. They don't always tell students.

Teddy Dukuly, a 32-year-old New Yorker, was unfamiliar with the private company helping run his online classes at Morehouse College.  

Teddy Dukuly is finishing his bachelor's degree via Morehouse's online degree completion program. He was surprised to learn an advisor he thought worked for Morehouse actually worked for the company, 2U.

When he sought guidance, he thought he was talking to a Morehouse adviser. On LinkedIn, however, the man lists his employer as 2U. Reviewing his emails, Dukuly noticed other clues, such as passing references to 2U in the URL of his online portal – but not in his adviser’s email signature.  

“They should identify as who they are,” he said. “That transparency would be nice.” 

Morehouse Online is a partnership between Morehouse, the nation’s only all-men’s historically Black college, and 2U, a for-profit education technology company. When announced in February 2021, it was billed as an affordable degree completion program for some of the nation’s 2.2 million Black men with college credits but no degree.

Lack of transparency, however, is among growing criticisms directed at companies like 2U, known as online program managers.

Education technology leaders say these companies can help colleges financially while making higher education accessible to students not well served by brick-and-mortar programs. Critics say the companies’ business model can cause confusion among students and may lead to universities and for-profit operators favoring enrollment goals over academic quality. 

Most universities are slow to change, and teaching online isn’t as simple as hosting a Zoom meeting. Online program managers, like 2U, help bring in-person courses online, market the programs and find students. 

It’s an increasingly competitive undertaking, as more colleges seek to attract adult learners to fill the gap left as fewer students enroll straight out of high school.  

At the same time, setting up online classes is expensive. Online program managers take on the upfront cost in exchange for keeping, at times, a majority of the program’s revenue for years.

2U is among the largest and best-known online program managers, and it grew even larger with the $800 million purchase of edX, a nonprofit focused on free online courses, in 2021. Other online program managers include Academic Partnerships and Wiley University Services.  

Government Accountability Office report last April found at least 550 colleges had worked with online program managers as of July 2021. 

Online program managers are often criticized for their opaque business practices. Like Dukuly, students may be unaware that their programs are being managed by for-profit companies.  

Christopher “Chip” Paucek, CEO and co-founder of 2U, said the company has never hidden its role but also told the Wall Street Journal in 2021 that in its early days, colleges wanted the company “to not be visible.” Paucek told USA TODAY the company going forward plans to recommend to its partners that 2U employees identify themselves more clearly, but that decision remains up to the college. 

Concerns over transparency extend to how colleges and these companies find and enroll new students.  

Normally, colleges can’t pay employees or companies based on the number of students they recruit. That’s part of a federal law meant to prevent unscrupulous operators from enrolling as many students as they can in low-quality academic programs. 

Colleges can pay online program managers for recruitment if they offer additional products like marketing, advertising or student support services.  

Stephanie Hall is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who has written critically about online program managers. She argued that when businesses are paid a percentage of an academic program’s revenue, they have an incentive to set up offerings quickly and “enroll as many students as possible.”

“There’s too much of a corporate relationship between the (online program manager) and the college,” Hall said. “Because of that then, the (online program manager) really has the upper hand in helping to drive program creation and deciding, ‘How many students are we going to try to get into these programs?’ ”

Others say online program managers help serve an unmet need. Adam Arguelles, a senior vice president for Academic Partnerships, said at a government hearing about online programs that the existing federal guidance allows “under-resourced institutions who face severe enrollment and financial challenges,” to launch online programs despite a lack of capital.

Arguelles said more than 80% of the company’s partners are regional public universities, and about a quarter serve a significant portion of minority students.

“These institutions pride themselves on providing economic mobility to their students and to meeting the most urgent workforce needs of their communities and of our country,” Arguelles said.

But the revenue-share model could soon be disrupted. The U.S. Education Department in February moved to update the federal guidance around online program managers by expanding the agency’s definition of third parties. The move would require universities to disclose when they work with third parties and subject them to further regulations.  

The proposed regulations have drawn consternation from some higher education and ed tech leaders. 2U is suing to block the expanded definition, saying the label has traditionally applied only to parties involved in financial aid. The department is considering revisions to its guidance.

It can be hard to know when an academic program is run in partnership with a third party. Most online program managers list at least some of the companies they work with on their websites, but some lists are more complete than others.  

USA TODAY asked three leading companies – 2U, Academic Partnerships and Wiley University Services – for a list of all of the schools they work with. 2U spokeswoman Kate Welk directed USA TODAY to separate websites for 2U and edX that together list more than 100 partners.

Deanna Raineri, the senior vice president for university strategy and market innovation at Wiley, in a statement, declined to share a list of its approximately 70 partners, which include regional public colleges and small liberal arts schools, citing “prior confidentiality commitments.” Katelynn Dugan, chief of communications at Academic Partnerships, also declined to provide a list of that company’s clients.

Here are a few other tips for spotting programs operated by third parties: 

◾ Staff of the online program managers may use email addresses that vary slightly from the schools’. In the case of Morehouse, 2U staffers use addresses ending in when the school’s standard domain is simply  

◾ Information about the online program manager might be found on the website for the academic program. Many programs operated by 2U, for example, include a mention of the company in small print at the bottom of the webpage. This isn’t always the case, though. USA TODAY found that several academic programs operated in connection with Academic Partnerships made no mention of the company's involvement on the school's websites. Several programs run in partnership with Wiley University Services only mentioned the online program manager in the fine print on a privacy policy.

◾ Just ask. Students can ask the employees they interact with, during the admissions process and once enrolled, if they work for the school or for a third party.  

◾ Many programs run by online program managers require students to share their contact information in web forms, Hall said, before giving them access to explanatory information like tuition costs or admissions requirements. She added that privacy policies attached to these forms may include a disclaimer indicating the courses are a partnership with an outside company. 

These methods rely on the universities and online program managers being open about their relationships. 

“Students should not have to take steps like this to ensure they have all the facts before applying for admission or enrolling in an institution,” Hall said. “Unfortunately, that is what students are left to do until the Department of Education revises its policies in favor of them.” 

Ultimately, online program managers are intermediaries and the final responsibility for the quality of the classes rests with the universities. Students can ask university staff about the availability of courses and how quickly the program fills up.  

Prospective online students could also try to figure out who will be teaching their classes. Are the instructors tenured or tenure-track professors at the college? Or are they adjunct faculty brought in solely to teach online courses?  

Students may want to inquire about how much of their instruction happens in real time versus how much occurs via recorded videos or similar static content. Will students have an opportunity to have live discussions with their peers? Or do classroom discussions solely take place on forum boards? 

Students should also consider asking university staff about the online program’s graduation and retention rates. If those figures aren’t available because a program is new, students should consider checking the school’s on-campus graduation rates via the College Scorecard, the federal government’s consumer guide to universities that receive federal funding. 

Chris Quintana and Tricia L. Nadolny are investigative reporters at USA TODAY. Chris can be reached at or via Signal at 202-308-9021. Tricia can be reached at or on Twitter at @TriciaNadolny.

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