One way to avoid regulatory pressure—particularly with an upcoming election that could change the regulatory environment—is to shed the for-profit label, says Silber. By branding the schools under their name, universities are “trying to avoid some of the negativity that may have been part of the for-profit deals,” he said.

There is the concern of the resurgence of more predatory behavior of these programs, says Robert Shireman, senior fellow at the progressive think-tank Century Foundation and a former Education Department official during the Obama administration.

Universities have long sought way to boost budgets from college sports to research partnerships, he says. The big difference now is that online models could “corrupt the core of the institution,” Shireman said.

Analysts say there will likely be more deals along the lines of Purdue-Kaplan and Arizona-Ashford in the future, and that it will be especially attractive for schools with a recognizable brand name but not a strong online presence. Those universities could potentially target online schools like University of Phoenix, American Military University, Colorado Technical University, and DeVry University.

Purdue Global may be a model for others to follow. When Purdue bought Kaplan University in 2017, it acquired the university’s 32,000 online students, 3,000 employees, and 15 brick-and-mortar campuses, from Graham Holdings Co. In exchange, Kaplan would earn up to 12.5% of the new school’s revenue and provide the new university with technical support, marketing, admission, and financial aid, among other services.

Frank Dooley, who became Purdue Global’s chancellor this May and was formerly Purdue’s senior vice provost for teaching and learning, says the biggest difference is that Purdue Global now has a public responsibility. That is seen in the educational offerings, he says: The school rolled out a contact tracing course in May, with 20,000 students signing up that month, and, following George Floyd’s death, made changes to the criminal justice curriculum that would focus on law enforcement’s role in society and societal change for its 1,500 students.

“A public institution would take on an offering like this as part of your public mission, whereas the for-profits probably aren’t going to do something like this,” says Dooley.

Still, Purdue Global has lackluster graduation rates of 26%. Dooley says he would like to see the rate increase to 60% to 70%. He adds that he is still “grappling” with how to best measure the completion rate for Purdue Global university students, and says the US Department of Education’s six-year graduation rate, which is calculated for first-time, full-time undergraduate students, does not best measure returning adult learners.

Purdue Global also continues to accrue losses. The online university’s net operating loss jumped from $38.4 million to $133.4 million, according to the university’s financial report, suggesting that buying a big online program will not necessarily produce immediate returns. In an interview last year, Purdue’s president Mitch Daniels admitted “we’re not achieving the growth that we thought we might have.”

Dooley says that online education can be done very well or very poorly—and that the same could be the same about face-to-face education. “All of a sudden, virtually all of higher ed has had to take a closer look at what does it mean to teach online?” he says. “And a number of people are learning how you can do it effectively. So I think it’s going to lead to a greater acceptance that online education can be legitimate if it’s done well.”

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.