Dr. Tracy Chapman shares insights from her experiences separating from OPM relationships during her previous positions in higher education leadership.

Twenty years ago, the online program management (OPM) revenue-share model introduced an opportunity for colleges and universities to enter the online education arena without the risk of upfront investment. The online education market has since matured and, in numerous cases, the OPM model has actually prevented institutions from developing the internal capacity and capabilities they need to thrive in today’s competitive market.

However, institutions looking to discontinue their revenue-share contracts in favor of more equitable and sustainable partnerships often find it difficult to separate from their OPM. To make the transition easier, consider the following tips gleaned from my firsthand experience transitioning away from an OPM to an online program enablement (OPE) partner as well as assessing and augmenting internal resources.

Gather as much information or detail from your OPM as possible.
It is easy to underestimate the effort and resources required to support online programs. Talk with your OPM’s day-to-day contacts to get as much information as possible about what they do and how they do it. Talk with new students about their experience during the recruitment and enrollment process, and talk with faculty about their experiences. The goal is to gain an understanding of the processes employed by the OPM, particularly in such areas as marketing, recruitment, enrollment, student persistence, course development and delivery, and faculty support.

Assess whether internal teams have the nuanced expertise of the OPM to support online programs.
Conduct a realistic evaluation of the internal capacity to assume support of online programs in key functional areas: marketing, recruitment, enrollment, student persistence, program/course development and help desk services.

Collect, connect, and activate your data.
A key challenge for higher education institutions today is collecting data that is siloed in disconnected systems. OPMs typically aggregate data to inform investments in the online programs they support. It is important to understand your internal capacity and capability for using data in support of online programs, including the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of investments in marketing, recruitment, and student persistence.

External partners are needed for success.
Gaining a realistic understanding of your internal capacity provides the foundation to determine where it makes sense to invest in building internal capacity and where it makes sense to engage external expertise. Supporting online education requires a broad set of knowledge and skills that are constantly evolving as the market gets more competitive. External partners experienced in online education are often necessary to scale programs successfully. OPE companies are well positioned to support online programs, and the right OPE partner will do so in a way that provides transparency, supports the development of your team, and positions your programs for long-term success.

Develop a multi-year financial plan (with realistic expectations).
A plan with a realistic ROI timeframe will help manage expectations about what to expect during the transition from the OPM. A dip in enrollment may be expected, but working closely with the new OPE partner to establish realistic enrollment projections will help align expectations across all stakeholders. OPM contracts typically require the revenue share to continue for several years beyond the end of the contract. Clearly identifying the revenue share as a line item in the financial projections will help stakeholders delineate the actual progress with the new OPE model versus the payout from the expired OPM agreement.

Informing leaders and stakeholders will help garner support.
Leaders at most institutions are not aware of the skills, tools and resources necessary to compete in today’s online education marketplace. Providing leadership with a clearly defined path, financial plan, and rationale for success beyond the OPM relationship is critically important. Additionally, keeping leadership and stakeholders informed of progress (and challenges) through regular and meaningful updates will help maintain support for the plan.

Expect the unexpected.
Expect challenges during the first year or so of the new model as you build internal capacity and transition into the OPE agreement. It takes time to work through unexpected issues and find the optimal way to collaborate. Institutions that succeed are those that take the time to work through challenges, pivot as necessary to align with performance and market trends, and develop a true strategic partnership with their OPE.

Start with the End in Mind

Prior to concluding an OPM relationship, it is critically important to understand as much detail as possible about the OPM’s functions and processes and your institution’s capacity to assume the OPM’s work. If your higher education institution chooses to work with an OPE, which is a better partner for long-term growth, the OPE partner should help you through the transition. For more information on the differences between OPMs and OPEs, as well as considerations for choosing each option, download “Enablement vs. Management: Finding the Right Online Program Partner.”

Author: Tracy Chapman, PhD

Tracy Chapman, PhD., serves as Collegis’s Chief Academic Officer. Chapman’s 20+ years in academia includes leadership, scholarship, and innovative approaches to reaching students. Prior to joining Collegis, Chapman served as the dean of the School for Professional Studies and associate provost for Distance Education at Saint Louis University, and led Creighton University’s Center for Academic Innovation.