The rapid rise of online enrollments in public universities has been fueled by a reliance on for-profit, third-party providers—especially online program managers. However, scholars know very little about the potential problems with this arrangement. We conduct a mixed methods analysis of 229 contracts between third-party providers and 117 two-year and four-year public universities in the US, data on the financing structure of third-party providers, and university online education webpages. We ask: What are the mechanisms through which third-party relationships with universities may be exploitative of students or the public universities that serve them? To what extent are potentially predatory processes linked to the private equity and venture capital financing structure of third-party providers? We highlight specific mechanisms that lead to five predatory processes: the targeting of marginalized students, extraction of revenue, privatization by obfuscation, for-profit creep, and university captivity. We demonstrate that contracts with private equity and venture capital financed third-party providers are more likely to include potentially problematic contract stipulations. We ground our findings in a growing body of work on “platform capitalism” and include recommendations for state universities, accreditors, and federal policy.
June 13, 2022
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)