Many universities are looking to online degrees to secure their financial health and survival, with a range of factors leading to fewer students seeking a traditional campus experience.
But as institution leaders look around for the experience and skills to build a virtual campus and to run the sophisticated digital marketing initiatives necessary to attract students from around the world, they can't always leverage the expertise in-house.
The rise of the $1.1 billion OPM market
This is one of many reasons why some universities are outsourcing online programming and digital recruitment efforts to online program manager partners (OPMs), such as 2U, Bisk, Pearson Embanet, Wiley Education Solutions, and Academic Partnerships.
These OPMs provide services that historically sit outside the competency of traditional universities, which are more geared towards face-to-face education, and they typically bear the upfront costs of setting up online programs.
But all this comes at a price, widely reported as 50-70% of student's tuition payments.
The chaotic and competitive environment for online degrees
OPM companies in existence today differ across dimensions in terms of a commercial model, range of services and scope of programs they deliver.
2U, for example, focuses primarily on US-based graduate programs, working with 'top tier' universities which offer small class sizes.
Others like Noodle Partners are helping universities to create and manage both online and hybrid programs.
Like any competitive market, the prominent companies are adapting, innovating and experimenting in new business models and services and extending their reach.
OPMs are unbundling services to broaden their appeal
Whilst tuition-splitting is still commonplace, an alternative a la carte model, based on fees for services, is gaining traction.
In this new model, universities contract with OPMs for bundles of services that they select, rather than for full program design and delivery.
Institutions in this set-up can utilize an OPM partner for handling fees or digital marketing, for example, or actual student recruitment or for providing the infrastructure to run courses.
The services offered by the OPM sector are broadening beyond marketing, enrollment and other administrative functions. Career services and student success coaching for online learners, for example, are two areas colleges may increasingly hand over to OPMs.
Penn State University's online World Campus, for example, works with educational services provider InsideTrack on a coaching program. The pair says the effort increased the first-year retention by 3.6 percentage points and enrollment yield by 28%.
Universities start to build their virtual degree capabilities
The unbundling of services is undoubtedly extending the reach of OPMs. Meanwhile, some institutions believe that outsourcing their digital education infrastructure could negatively impact their university, leaving it lacking essential competencies in-house to deliver online programs in the future.
For these institutions, the downsides of using OPMs are too high and they've decided to remain campus-focused or to build their own virtual campuses without them. The likes of Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State University and the University of Central Florida have taken this approach and are seeing enrollments rise markedly with over 100,000 online students applying each year.
But the decision to follow this path depends largely on internal capabilities and expertise in building processes to support online learning, running contact centers, and organizing virtual teams, amongst other things.
Catching the online education revolution
There's no doubt that OPM partnerships have delivered many benefits for universities over the years, especially for institutions without the infrastructure and expertise to craft high quality online learning experiences.
And in some cases, using an OPM has provided institutions with an opportunity to learn directly through exposure to their techniques in the recruitment, online marketing and delivery of online courses.
But for the institutions that have decided to fly solo and take their online degree offerings to market without external support, the biggest challenge is how to recruit virtual learners using sophisticated digital marketing techniques when the playing field is international and the budgets large.
To find out more about that, read part 2 of our series to discover what digital marketing tactics OPMs are using and how you can apply them to benefit your online and hybrid degree programs.