From June: A jaw-dropping paper, based on FOIA documents, that tracks the foundation-boring grip that for-profit Online Program Management (OPM) firms like 2U have on public universities. The authors combed through hundreds of private contracts, documenting widespread predation—like targeting marginalized students:

For example, the 30-year agreement between Purdue Global and private-equity-backed Kaplan states that the intent of the contract is to “create a new U.S. degree-granting online institution designed specifically to serve non-traditional students” and to “expand access to higher education for adult learner and other nontraditional students.” Zovio’s website, describing the University of Arizona-Ashford conversion, similarly notes that the partnership “will focus on serving underrepresented and non-traditional students.” Other contracts use similar terms—e.g., “non-traditional,” “working adult,” and “diverse populations.” […] the University of Texas at El Paso-Pearson contract notes that “UTEP agrees to provide Pearson with the following information for the purpose of promoting and marketing of the e-Learning Programs: Prospective students who applied for admission to UTEP but were not admitted.” Universities can even sell contact information for students who did not qualify for their online program to for-profit providers, who will then recruit those students for other partner university programs with open admission or very low requirements. The University of California, Berkeley-2U contract includes $4.2 million dollars in financial “compensation” to UC-Berkeley for such a provision: 2U can recruit students for lower-ranked partner school Southern Methodist University, if the students are those whom “UC Berkeley reasonably predict[s] are not otherwise academically qualified” or appear to “have disengaged with 2U” as is stated in the program criteria.

The research team identified four other “predatory processes” that characterize OPMs: revenue extraction, privatization by obfuscation, for-profit creep, and university lock-in. The paper—which deserves a much wider readership—is marinated in the damning words of the contracts themselves.

The authors drive at the fundamental misalignment of nonprofit higher-ed and the OPM profiteers. Indeed, the problems they document are worse, across the board, for firms financed by private equity and/or VCs.

Table 2 from Hamilton et al (2022)