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Back to School for College Students Is Shifting From Campuses to Online

While college campus life may have drawn students in previous years, more and more students are turning to online programs for higher education. COVID-19 dramatically increased this trend, at least temporarily. In our new report, we found that nearly three-quarters of college students enrolled in hybrid or fully online programs in the fall of 2020.

With the rise of online education, more colleges are contracting with third-party companies (known as online program managers) to help them develop and deliver their online programs. But what do online program managers do and who monitors them? Today’s WatchBlog post explores.

The rise of online education and how it works

Online education offerings have been available for a while. But, as one might expect, they grew considerably during the pandemic, when they allowed students to continue coursework while campuses were closed. And, even after the pandemic, many colleges plan to continue to offer courses and programs online.

Many colleges manage and develop their own online offerings. However, in our new report, we estimate that hundreds of colleges contract out this work to third parties. Online program managers can help colleges develop online courses and provide technology support to students and faculty, and they also commonly recruit students for these online programs.

Concerns about how the Department of Education monitors recruiting for online programs

To protect students from misleading or high-pressure recruiting methods, federal law prohibits colleges from paying bonuses or other financial incentives to recruiting staff based on how many students they enroll. Colleges are also prohibited from contracting with online program managers that have these kinds of incentives.

The Department of Education is responsible for ensuring that colleges follow these prohibitions and monitors them in two ways. First, it uses reports from independent auditors that all colleges must provide. Second, Education uses its own reviews of a small number of colleges each year. Independent auditors are supposed to review any college contract with a third party for student recruiting. However, we found that the instructions given to independent auditors lack key details, making it hard for auditors to identify prohibited financial incentives.

Further, because instructions for auditors and colleges did not contain clear guidance, auditors and Education may not be aware of some online program manager contracts. This could make it harder for Education to know whether colleges are violating federal law by contracting with entities that include prohibited financial incentives.

What more can Education do to protect students?

Many colleges plan to continue offering online courses, in part because of their benefits beyond pandemic response. Online education offers the potential to create personalized learning experiences and provides flexibility for students in remote locations or with work or family responsibilities.

We made two recommendations for Education to provide better instructions to independent auditors and colleges to ensure it can appropriately monitor college arrangements with online program managers and safeguard students from abusive recruiting practices.

To learn more about our work on online higher education, check out our new report.

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