The University of Wisconsin-Superior shocked students, employees and alumni last fall with the suspension of more than two dozen academic programs.
Student protests were held, donors were lost, the faculty union investigated the decision process and complaints rolled into the inboxes of top administrators. When the dust settled, some wondered what was next for the school of 2,500 - the only University of Wisconsin campus in the northwestern part of the state.
Many saw the decision as a blow to the school's reputation as a region-serving institution strong in liberal arts. More recently there was the disclosure that UWS had hired a for-profit company to help boost online enrollment for some graduate education programs, an increasingly common but controversial partnership in the world of higher education.
The 7-year contract, formed in 2016, means the online program manager gets half of the revenue received for each student it recruits the first three years, tapering to 40 percent by the end. The company - Academic Partnerships - has received nearly $450,000 in payments through March.
The decisions have led some faculty and alumni to wonder what's next for the university. Will it become more online focused at the expense of brick-and-mortar programs? Or will continued expansion of online offerings be the financial salve that on-campus programs need to thrive?
"I think they are headed in a more profit-driven direction," said Matt Grusznis, a 2016 graduate pursuing a political affairs master's degree in North Carolina.
In his time there, he found UWS to be a nurturing campus that offered a well-rounded public education, he said, and "I believe they are cutting that away from many students."
But for online graduate education student and central Wisconsin teacher Sarah Sabelko, the partnership with the online company was key to her enrollment at the university in a program with "a solid reputation."
"I don't know that I would have known (UWS) was an option without their recruitment," she said.
'A double whammy'
UWS, like others in the University of Wisconsin system, has long suffered from cuts to state aid. With an annual deficit of about $2.5 million, it's been relying on excess tuition revenue to pay some bills, leaving less money to innovate. Finances weren't cited in the suspension of programs with low enrollments when the decision was announced last fall. But more recently interim provost Jackie Weissenburger said it was too expensive to operate programs with low student interest.
"State support keeps decreasing, and we can't increase undergraduate tuition rates. It's a double whammy," she said.
Online growth itself is "critical" to the future of UWS, and the partnership with the online enrollment booster is key to ensuring that growth at a time when traditional four-year universities are stagnant, and to meeting the needs of the region, said chancellor Renee Wachter.
She insisted UWS hasn't abandoned its mission.
"What we're seeing online is true to that mission," Wachter said. "Students do receive a liberal arts grounding and foundation, but it's also our obligation to reach students, to provide access."
The university's online programs mostly attract students who live in Wisconsin and Minnesota who don't want to uproot. This is especially the case in education. Practicing teachers and administrators who live several towns away need online programs, said Brenda Harms, interim vice chancellor of enrollment management.
"We've shifted delivery, and that's made them more appealing," she said.
UWS has long offered undergraduate online programs, gradually adding to its array over the years. Online graduate programs are a more recent addition. Enrollment growth at UWS comes largely from these areas.
From 2007 to 2017, the number of students enrolled online increased by 176 percent. The biggest jumps are seen in the programs which Academic Partnerships recruits for and markets.
There were 117 students enrolled in three of those programs this fall, up from 21 in the fall of 2016. They recently added a new superintendent track.
As UWS moves forward, it does so with a strategic plan to strengthen the physical campus and the community it serves, Wachter said.
"The online experience isn't right for everyone, and certainly not for the 18- to 21-year-old coming out of high school," she said. "There is so much that happens on a college campus that goes beyond the academic piece: student development, leadership skills ... that will never be replaced. But we can also serve the (online) needs we know are out there."
Online programming can be a good thing, said 2014 graduate Andrew Flick, "but investments there shouldn't come at the expense of programs offered on campus."
Flick, who owns a childcare center in Moorhead, Minn., is still smarting about the fall suspension of his political science major, one of many casualties.
"Universities are not businesses," he said.
Academic Partnerships - the hired online program manager at UWS - is one of dozens operating in the U.S. The privately-owned company headquartered in Dallas was created in 2007. It serves more than 50 colleges and universities, according to its website, and has recruited more than 200,000 students. The University of Texas and Eastern Michigan University are among its clients.
Neither the University of Minnesota Duluth nor the College of St. Scholastica use online program managers. UWS is the only campus within the UW System with such a contract, but the majority of the nation's public colleges and universities offering online education programs have similar agreements, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. The higher education research firm Eduventures says annual revenue for online program managers is expected to amount to $2.7 billion by 2020.
Services in the UWS contract include:
• Marketing, recruitment and promotion
• Program development and support
• Academic support for faculty
• Enrollment and application support for potential students
• Support for current students
UWS hired the company because it was struggling to find students for some of its graduate programs, which were not popular as on-campus options, Harms said.
The partnership has revived some programs that might have gone away, whose faculty members thought they'd be retiring and "see the death of their programs," Wachter said. "And now all of a sudden they are energized" by the revitalization.
But some faculty are leery of the relationship.
History professor Joel Sipress worries that if UWS becomes dependent on the enrollment the company generates, it could steer money into programs that do nothing to serve the region.
"Programs that might serve a very important community and regional need may be sacrificed to the desires of a company to grow enrollment," he said, noting its selling point in its proposal to UWS is just that: the company's ability to increase the count of students.
Sipress is also wary that there is no indication on UWS web pages and other marketing material that a private company is behind them.
Wachter has heard concerns about the partnership and they "baffle" her, she said.
"Businesses have done this for years: looking to outside expertise when they don't have it," she said, referring to marketing.
The company doesn't manage the academic programs, deliver the courses or decide the curriculum and who gets to enroll, Weissenburger said.
"There has been some talk that (the programs) are diploma mills or don't have integrity. But it's our faculty that developed these, it's our faculty teaching them," she said. "Our reputation is at stake here. ... If we don't offer a quality product, we're just shooting ourselves in the foot."
Faculty develop the online programs, but have design help and coaching from Academic Partnerships, said Terri Kronzer, a professor in the educational administration program. She appreciates the marketing help, and the found students.
"Bringing in money and getting these students is better than not having the students at all, which is what was happening," Kronzer said.
Weissenburger said UWS could add even more programs to the Academic Partnerships roster.
In regard to the relationship between UWS and its online program manager, a University of Wisconsin spokeswoman said that offering access and more opportunity to students are "top priorities" of the UW System.
"Growing online programs and participation will continue to be a key part in our efforts to increase the number of Wisconsin residents with higher education credentials," Heather Laroi said.
The majority of the students enrolled in the fully online graduate education programs live in Wisconsin or Minnesota. UWS is filling a need, said special education assistant professor Maryjane Burdge, because many special education teachers in rural Wisconsin are working with emergency licenses to address a shortage.
"They need to get licensed to stay there," she said, "and keep serving students with disabilities."
Sabelko, the graduate student recruited by Academic Partnerships, is a math teacher for the Durand-Arkansaw school district near Eau Claire. She is enrolled in the educational leadership program, working toward her principal and director of instruction licensures. She's raising two small children, she said, and online was the only way to go. While she found UWS through the recruiter at a math conference, she worked mostly with UWS faculty when it came to any advisement over enrollment, she said.
The classes are "rigorous," Sabelko said, "and they have people who know what they are doing."
For-profit companies like Academic Partnerships can be useful to universities with a "core, respected on-campus program" who want help expanding it online, said Robert Shireman, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation. Shireman, former Department of Education deputy undersecretary for the Obama Administration, organized the federal response in 2009 to signs of predatory for-profit career training.
"Where these kinds of deals can go wrong and result in abuses to students and a seriously damaged reputation to the college is when the for-profit company has essentially taken over and is running the operation," he said. "That's an invitation for them to oversell."
Shireman is also critical of the way most online program managers are paid.
"It's much better to pay contractors for the work they do and not give them bounties for enrolling students," he said, which leads to the danger of students who discover the program wasn't the right fit to feel "defrauded."
"The college needs to be paying close attention to what they are doing," Shireman said.
UWS leaders said their agreement is clear that the heart of the partnership - what students learn and who they learn it from - is all UWS.
"This is not the University of AP," Weissenburger said.