Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at left-aligned think tank The Century Foundation, was online, perusing public feedback the U.S. Department of Education received on a potential policy change, when he noticed something that stood out to him.
The policy issue in question is a potential reversal or update to 2011 guidance that allows colleges to strike revenue-sharing agreements with companies that help recruit students — so long as institutions receive other services “bundled” with recruitment, like IT assistance or career counseling.
The Education Department is accepting public comments on how to potentially alter that guidance. Doing so would affect many colleges. Institutions commonly make revenue-sharing deals with online program managers, or OPMs — arrangements that would require revision should the Education Department wind down the guidance.
But it wasn’t a college’s comment that struck Shireman. It was one from a former student, who in part praised 2U, a mammoth OPM, for working with their college and forging an easy path to their degree.
Shireman said in an interview it seemed unusual for a student to weigh in on this type of policy discussion, and even more so for them to single out a contractor. The commenter had posted their name, and with a quick internet search, Shireman found them.
They worked at 2U. And they had not disclosed that relationship in their comment, an omission Shireman called deceptive. As Shireman browsed additional comments, he found several other examples of 2U employees past and present who weighed in without flagging they were writing about their employer.
“It’s misleading to portray yourself as a student who benefited without disclosing there might be another reason you’re writing this letter,” Shireman said. “Like your employer's stock value might go down if they can’t do recruiting anymore.”
Other 2U workers have made their relationship known in comments, however.
2U is one of the most prominent OPMs in the business, but it has also suffered setbacks. Last July, it announced across-the-board layoffs to reduce employee expenses by 20%. It said in February, however, that though it expects net losses in 2023, it is on track to be profitable by reorienting its business strategy around edX, a well-known MOOC platform it acquired in 2021.
A 2U spokesperson responded to the Shireman’s criticism in an emailed statement Tuesday: “Any notion that 2U directed employees to withhold information about their employment when submitting comments is absolutely false. Importantly, these employees commented as individuals, and not on behalf of the company, and if they were intent on hiding their identity they could have posted anonymously in accordance with the Department’s process.”
What’s the policy under discussion?
In February, the Education Department said it would review the 2011 guidance, an action that threatens to ban OPMs from accepting money for recruiting, as well as update which organizations are subject to regulations governing third-party servicers.
Amid colleges and contracts scrambling to understand the third-party servicer guidance, the department later said changes would not come into effect until September to give institutions and those servicers enough time to comply.
For decades, federal law has prohibited colleges from paying incentives to recruiters for how many students they manage to enroll. The Obama-era guidance created an exception for this restriction, however, allowing tuition-share deals with companies who offer recruiting as part of a bundle of services.
The 2011 guidance is credited with spurring the rise of the multibillion-dollar OPM industry, which has allowed both public and private colleges to construct online degree programs. But the market has also come under fire over misleading recruitment practices.
Think tanks and consumer advocates have pressed the Education Department to end revenue sharing for recruiters, arguing such deals harm students. Shireman wrote in his comment to the Education Department on the guidance that with these arrangements, “programs are incentivized to generate as many enrollments as possible, which has led to instances of aggressive and predatory recruiting.”
Meanwhile, some colleges and backers of the 2011 guidance have said institutions, particularly smaller ones, need help constructing viable online degree program infrastructure.
What did 2U employees say?
Shireman identified six instances of current and former 2U employees who submitted comments to the Education Department without explicitly stating their ties to the company. He flagged those examples for the Education Department, which did not respond to Higher Ed Dive’s request for comment Tuesday.
More than 250 comments had been made public as of late Tuesday. Commenters span the higher education sector and beyond, including faculty members, graduates, advocacy organizations and OPMs.
One commenter, who identified herself as Jessica Appelbaum Wang and a first-generation college student, said she graduated from Syracuse University with a master’s in business administration and partially attributed her success to the program’s online nature.
“I’m concerned by any regulation that would prohibit or deter colleges and universities from working with companies like 2U to build high-quality online programs, particularly those that have a strong track record of outcomes,” Appelbaum Wang wrote.
She did not share that she’s also a 2U senior vice president, according to her LinkedIn. Her LinkedIn also states she’s a Syracuse University graduate.
Darcy Price, who according to her LinkedIn has been a 2U vice president since 2020, wrote in a comment that “online learning is the future of education, and companies like 2U play a crucial role in making it accessible to a wider audience.”
Price’s comment lists her as living in Phoenix, as does her LinkedIn.
And Bryan Brindley, who in his feedback scolded the Education Department for not recognizing the benefits of “accessible online education,” works for 2U as a senior director of digital marketing, according to his LinkedIn.
“I wish to express my strong support for the role 2U (and other edtech companies) play in helping universities expand access to education,” Brindley wrote.
Brindley wrote in his comment he graduated with a master’s degree in business administration from American University, in Washington, D.C., which his LinkedIn profile confirms.
None of the six 2U employees Shireman identified responded to requests for comment Tuesday.
Other 2U employees in their comments did tell the Education Department that they work for the OPM.
One such person is Elizabeth Peters, whose LinkedIn says she is a 2U senior director. She wrote in her comment she’s been with 2U for seven years and said she could not have earned her master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley without the institution’s partnership with the OPM.
Another commenter, Katherine Williams, who according to her LinkedIn has worked at 2U for more than seven years, wrote that if it “were not for the accessibility offered by an online program of such high caliber, as a single mother of two young children it would not have been possible for me to continue my education.”
“I would like to express my support for the role 2U plays in helping universities expand access to education and I am concerned by any regulation that would prohibit or deter colleges and universities from working with companies like 2U to build high-quality online programs,” Williams wrote.