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The Private Side of Public Higher Education

September 4, 2017

Researcher questions motives of private firms providing services to digitize learning.

Across the United States, the vast majority of public colleges and universities that offer online education programs or courses are now relying upon external companies to do so. The services these companies—so-called online program managers (OPMs)—provide range from simply supplying the online platform through which university affiliates interact with students to all-inclusive distance-learning programs rebranded under the institution’s name, and everything in between. 
 
Helping institutions initiate and expand their online programming has become a$1.5 billion industry that is expected to grow at an estimated annual rate of 35 percent in the coming years. In many cases, there seems little downside for schools to work with OPMs to serve and expand their population of online students—already over a quarter of the 20 million students enrolled in higher education—since most of the upfront costs associated with online learning (i.e. technology development) are shouldered by the outside company in these deals. As a result, schools get the opportunity to launch online programs that they would otherwise never be able to afford. Particularly in light of decreased state spending on higher education, the potential revenue stream online education represents is simply too attractive for many public institutions to pass up. 
 
These outside contractors may be supporting and supplying online programming effectively, but the involvement of a third-party—particularly a profit-seeking entity—in providing services so intertwined with the actual teaching and learning also presents potential risks to quality and value in the education. Specifically, the growing use of for-profit intermediaries to provide online programming at public institutions raises important questions concerning whether these agreements appropriately shield students from the profit-seeking motives of these companies, inform students about exactly who is responsible for the education they are receiving, and provide quality education that is up to the standards of institutions backed by the full faith and credit of states. 
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Education