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College students move from campus to online for the new semester

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College campus life may have attracted students in the past, but more and more students are turning to online programs for higher education. COVID-19 has dramatically increased this trend, at least temporarily. Our new report found that nearly three-quarters of her college students enrolled in a hybrid or fully online program in the fall of 2020.

With the rise of online education, more and more universities are contracting with third-party companies (known as online program managers) to help develop and deliver their online programs. But what does an online program manager do and who oversees it? Today’s WatchBlog post is an exploration.

The rise of online education and how it works

Online education services have been available for some time. But as you can imagine, they have grown significantly during the pandemic, when students have been able to continue classes while campuses are closed. And even after the pandemic, many universities plan to continue offering courses and programs online.

Many universities manage and develop their own online services. But our new report estimates that hundreds of universities outsource this work to third parties. Online Program Managers can help universities develop online courses and provide technical support to students and faculty. We also often recruit students for these online programs.

Concern about how the Department of Education monitors recruitment for online programs

To protect students from misleading or pressureful recruitment practices, federal law prohibits universities from paying bonuses or other financial incentives to recruitment staff based on the number of students enrolled. Universities are also prohibited from contracting online program managers with these types of incentives.

The Department of Education is responsible for ensuring that universities comply with these prohibitions and monitor them in two ways. First, we use reports from independent auditors that all universities must provide. Second, Education uses its own reviews of a handful of universities each year. Independent auditors are supposed to review contracts with third parties and universities for student recruitment. However, we found that the instructions given to the independent auditors lacked important details, making it difficult for auditors to identify prohibited financial incentives.

Additionally, the instructions to auditors and universities did not contain clear guidance, so auditors and education may not be aware of some online program manager agreements. This can make it difficult for institutions to know if colleges are violating federal law by contracting with entities that contain prohibited financial incentives.

What more can educational institutions do to protect their students?

Many universities plan to continue offering online courses. One reason is that there are benefits beyond dealing with the pandemic. Online education offers the potential to create a personalized learning experience and offers flexibility for students who are remote or have work and home responsibilities.

We need educational institutions to provide independent auditors and better direction to universities, to properly monitor university arrangements with online program managers, and to help protect students from fraudulent recruitment practices. We have made two recommendations for

Learn more about our work on online higher education in our new report.