December 3, 2023

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Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank The Century Foundation, was online reviewing public feedback the US Department of Education had received on a potential policy change when he noticed something that caught his eye.

The question of politics in question is a potential twist or update to the 2011 manual this allows colleges to enter into revenue-sharing agreements with companies that help recruit students — as long as the institutions receive other services “related” to recruiting, such as IT assistance or career counseling.

The Department of Education is accepting public comments on how to potentially change these guidelines. This would affect many colleges. Institutions routinely enter into revenue-sharing agreements with online program managers, or OPMs — arrangements that would require revision if the Department of Education were to rescind the guidelines.

But Shireman was unfazed by the college comment. It was one from a former student who partially praised 2U, the mammoth OPM, for working with their college and creating an easy path to a degree.

Shireman said in an interview that it seemed unusual for a student to engage in this type of policy discussion, and even more so when he chose a contractor. A commenter posted their name and Shireman found them with a quick internet search.

They worked on 2U. And they did not disclose that relationship in their commentary, an omission that Shireman called fraudulent. As Shireman sifted through other comments, he found several other examples of former and current 2U employees who signed up without identifying themselves as writing about their employer.

“It’s misleading to portray yourself as a student who benefited without disclosing that there may be another reason why you’re writing this letter,” Shireman said. “As if your employer’s stock might drop in value if they can no longer recruit.”

However, other 2U workers announced their relationship in the comments.

2U is one of the most prominent OPMs in the industry, but it has also suffered setbacks. last July announced widespread layoffs reduce employee expenses by 20%. It he said in Februaryhowever, that although it expects net losses in 2023, it is on track to turn a profit by refocusing its business strategy on edX, the well-known MOOC platform it acquired in 2021.

A 2U spokesperson responded to Shireman’s criticism in an emailed statement on Tuesday: “Any notion that 2U directed employees to withhold information about their employment when submitting comments is absolutely false. Importantly, these employees were commenting as individuals, not on behalf of the company, and if they intended to hide their identity, they could have posted anonymously in accordance with the Department’s procedure.”

What is the policy being discussed?

In February, the Education Department said it would review the 2011 guidance, an action that threatens to bar OPM from accepting recruiting money, and also update which organizations are subject to regulations governing third party service providers.

In the middle of colleges and contracts, they try to understand the instructions of third-party service workers, departments changes listed later it won’t come into effect until September to give institutions and those trustees plenty of time to come into compliance.

For decades, federal law has banned colleges from paying recruiters incentives for how many students they manage to enroll. However, the Obama-era guidelines created an exception to this restriction, but allowed tuition-share deals with companies that offer recruitment as part of a package of services.

The 2011 guidance is credited with spurring the rise of the multibillion-dollar OPM industry, which has allowed both public and private colleges to create online degree programs. But the market also came under fire over misleading recruitment practices.

Think tanks and consumer advocates have urged the Department of Education to end revenue sharing for recruiters, arguing that such agreements harm students. Commenting on the guidelines for the Department of Education, Shireman wrote that with these measures, “programs are incentivized to generate as many applicants as possible, which has led to instances of aggressive and predatory recruitment.”

Meanwhile, some colleges and supporters of the 2011 guidelines said institutionsespecially smaller ones, need help building a viable infrastructure of online degree programs.

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