Lisa Bannon and Rebecca Smith
July 6, 2022
2U Inc. isn’t a university, but it sometimes looks like one.
The online education company uses the “.edu” email addresses of partner universities to recruit students for them. It funds scholarships. The company also uses equipment that makes it look as if its recruiters are calling from universities’ area codes.
American universities are searching for ways to generate more revenue. As a result, hundreds of schools—including Vanderbilt University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—are teaming up with for-profit companies such as 2U to provide online programs.
As part of the arrangement, one that is reshaping higher education, universities sometimes hand over to companies a great deal of control of student recruitment and instructional design, especially for nondegree programs. For their work, the companies receive hefty shares of tuition dollars.
Much of this isn’t clear to prospective and current students. Universities often cooperate with companies in ways that can blur the lines for students between schools and recruiters.
2U, based in Lanham, Md., has emerged as a leader in the booming field, employing aggressive recruiting practices and in some cases playing down its role, according to interviews with current and former 2U employees and students.
Christopher “Chip” Paucek, 2U’s chief executive and a co-founder, said the company is providing valuable services to universities that many can’t do themselves. “For the last 14 years, 2U has worked to expand access to high-quality online education for learners around the world, enabling hundreds of thousands of students to transform their lives,” Mr. Paucek said in a written statement.
Christina Denkinger wanted something new after 14 years as an elementary-school teacher in Portland, Ore. After shopping around for a course in data analytics last fall, she requested information through a University of Oregon website portal for an online training program, called a boot camp, offered by the university’s continuing-education division.
She received a “uoregon.edu” email from someone identifying herself as admissions adviser for the boot camp. It had the university logo, and there was no mention in the email of 2U. Ms. Denkinger paid $11,995 to enroll last December.
“The only reason I signed up for this boot camp was because of the reputation of the university,” she said.