Higher education trends are regularly in flux. Among the most prominent shifts ushered in by our current digital era is the rapid growth of online learning. The latest report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) revealed that overall college enrollment dropped by nearly 90,000 students in 2017 – yet the number of students who participated in distance education grew by more than 350,000.

As revenue from online programs rises, competition within the online learning market also grows continually steep. Demand for flexible, digital learning options is heating up, which makes having robust, reliable and competitive distance education programs more than important – it’s vital.

But getting your programs online is no easy feat. A number of different institutional factors can have an impact on long-term success. Colleges and universities will often seek the help of online program management (OPM) companies to help transition their established on-campus programs into the online space.

As you seek to take advantage of your stand-out programs by either bringing them online for the first time or scaling them to meet a growing demand, you’ll want to arm yourself with the right expertise to get the job done. So, are OPMs truly the key to successful distance education initiatives? Is it possible to find success without them?

Read on as we explore the answers to these important questions.

The changing landscape of online program management companies

Transitioning your programs and staff to fit the evolving demands of online learning can be intimidating. That’s why OPMs were first established. They offer a suite of services to help higher education institutions navigate the murky waters of scaling their budding online programs – services that rely on the expertise of digital marketers, web developers, data analysts, recruitment professionals, program designers, education technologists and student support specialists.

While just a handful OPMs existed a decade ago, the market is now saturated with at least three times as many. But amidst the expansive growth has come a new level of necessary scrutiny. “The last several years have seen the OPM market come under duress due to the inability to sustain viable revenue-share models,” says Bob King, Executive Vice President of Partner Strategy at Collegis Education.

The shortcomings of such revenue-share agreements, King explains, are becoming apparent to observers who recognize the increasing level of competition in the market and the evolving views on traditional master’s degree formats.

“As the cost to recruit and enroll online graduate students has skyrocketed, the OPM model has begun to deteriorate – even for the elite brands,” King notes. “The rapid proliferation of online programs only means that every time another program launches, competition and cost to acquire a student increase even more.”

As the OPM model continues to break down, he suggests that colleges take a detailed look at what they can and cannot accomplish with their current resources. Institutions may be facing a future in which they must own their online programs without turnkey OPM resources – and it’s understandable if you’re wary about your school’s ability to do so.

That’s why we’ve outlined a number of elements to consider as you assess the health of your institution’s distance education capabilities.

9 Considerations for scaling your online programs without an OPM

Collegis Education has ample experience helping partner institutions overcome the wide range of challenges that crop up when expanding into the online learning space. We’ve learned that if you aren’t confident in nine key factors, your online programs will not live up to the already established and successful competition.

Ask yourself how well your internal teams can execute on the following:

1. Do you have the internal resources to market to and attract online students?

To effectively compete in the hot-ticket online program environment, you must be able to generate inquiries in an efficient manner while tracking and moving investments and resources to the highest ROI efforts. The past few years have seen a rapid increase in marketing acquisition costs that render the typical OPM revenue-share model impossible to sustain for all parties.

“For institutions moving away from an OPM or choosing to build on their own, the biggest challenge I see is developing a market-focused enrollment plan that is realistic about what the market can bear and what the actual upfront costs will be — versus developing arbitrary enrollment targets,” says Jeff Certain, Senior Director of Partner Strategy at Collegis Education. “For example, most OPMs don’t share their marketing investment levels, but they are usually much higher than what institutions can afford out of the gate on their own.”

An optimized marketing strategy is key to growing – or launching – a successful online program. Institutions should develop a plan that is optimized for the online student audience — rather than the marketing channel. Analyzing digital media performance combined with market research will help maximize the high media investment. In addition to digital media campaigns, organic website tactics are equally critical – developing a web presence that attracts online, non-traditional students.

2. Does your student enrollment experience support online student admission?

Impactful and efficient outreach to prospective students plays in a high-performance online enrollment environment. Determining vital student enrollment factors (including motivations and obstacles) at the initial point of contact contributes significantly to a prospect’s likelihood of enrolling. Today’s student not only needs this high level of engagement and customized communication, but expects it quickly.

“Marketing is not enough,” Certain argues. “Admissions and marketing need an orchestrated approach that is focused on giving prospects the information they need to enroll and be successful. A dedicated student recruitment is vital to warmly and accurately reflect your brand, mission and values – creating a more engaged and prepared student.”

A solid inquiry outreach model also amplifies the effect of digital media investments, as digital channels require strong engagement at the point of inquiry to maximize conversion and deliver a strong return on investment.

3. Do you have the capacity, resources and expertise to develop an online program library?

In the face of enrollment challenges and rising student expectations, you need to offer constantly improving online options to maintain your current student base and expand into new student populations. This means your institution needs to develop a large library of courses to sustain those online programs.

To effectively do this, not only do you need the resources to construct a production team, but the team must be experienced and skilled at collaborating with faculty to create high-quality online experiences at the capacity you need to meet demand.

4. Are you able to diagnose what’s going wrong and develop solutions?

Across the spectrum of age and other varying demographics, today’s student base is largely comprised of digital natives who demand high-quality user experiences in sophisticated and engaging online environments. Without them, students will lose interest and wander off – potentially to competitors who can provide what they want.

An overall lack of student engagement can result in low student outcomes and insurmountable retention challenges. To keep your students, you need to be able to provide video, media and interactive experiences. You must also be able to quickly diagnose challenges with student engagement in existing online courses and implement strategies for improvement.

The key to understanding this is found in the analytics – having access to the numbers and a team to translate them into actionable insights can be a crucial aspect of success.

5. Are you willing to invest in faculty training programs and hire additional team members?

As more students make the transition from on-campus to online, they expect the faculty in their distance education courses to demonstrate the same skills, confidence and effectiveness in the online classroom that they do in a brick-and-mortar environment. But it’s often the case that established faculty are not experienced at teaching in the online space, or possibly aren’t even interested in the training needed to become an effective instructor within this modality.

This is where it can be helpful to partner with someone who can bring in experienced coaches and can leverage digital, blended and face-to-face training curriculum to develop faculty to the highest levels of skills and effectiveness.

6. Do you have the engineering talent to develop a cohesive learning technology infrastructure?

In the past, simply having a Learning Management System (LMS) was enough to support online courses. Today, successful programs must be a part of a comprehensive technology ecosystem that meets the increasingly sophisticated needs of learners.

Many LMSes offer a wide range of customizable features to create tailored and streamlined user experiences for the student – but many institutions do not take full advantage of the capabilities available. Today’s online programs leverage multiple technologies, and it takes a certain level of expertise to integrate those various technologies into a cohesive and effective learning experience.

7. Can you provide the technical support today’s online learners expect?

We live in a 24/7 world – and students expect the same availability to support services from their schools as they receive from other industries, such as banks, retailers and social media. Online students are often completing classwork in the evenings or on weekends and need access to technology support.

“Institutional leaders are often unaware of the pain points in the student experience caused by inadequately-designed or poorly-implemented technology solutions,” according to Todd Pombert, Vice President of Infrastructure Technology at Collegis Education. “Difficulties in filling out applications, paying tuition bills or registering for classes can greatly impact the retention and learning experience for students. It’s imperative that your IT teams are supporting the student experience.”

Tech teams need a multi-tiered support system capable of handling calls, emails, chats and web submissions that relate to a broad variety of topics and systems, including: application support; course/learning management systems; campus bookstores and libraries; and first-level hardware/software problem-resolution and determination. Plus, the team needs to be available around the clock – something on-campus teams are often unable to sustain.

8. Do you have the expertise required to make effective use of your LMS data?

Effective institutions are leveraging LMS student data to improve outcomes, retention and overall student success. Without this, decisions are made that can affect the entire institution’s online offerings without the backing of provable results.

There is a great opportunity to move beyond subjective measurements and leverage objective data on student activity and outcomes to make decisions regarding online course and curriculum design, development and deployment. This type of information can directly aid not just recruitment efforts, but also the participation rates of your current students, giving you valuable insight into keeping them at your institution.

9. Do you utilize technology solutions that enhance the user experience and lessen barriers to learning?

There are numerous technologies that online students have become accustomed, and institutions would be wise to ensure are implemented in their online programs. Simplicity and engagement are critical success factors for a cohesive, integrated learning technology ecosystem.

Institutions should capitalize on new authentication technologies including single sign-on (SSO). With the simplicity of an SSO, users are no longer required to remember numerous passwords to access various applications or systems. Not only does it reduce password fatigue, but it also lowers the time users spend re-entering their details for accessing a certain system.

Moreover, students have come to expect high-quality experiences using video to build dynamic, effective and engaging online learning environments. Your video infrastructure must dynamically adjust to best suit your student’s device and bandwidth, whether they are at home with a computer desktop and cable broadband, or watching on their phone leveraging cellular data.

There’s a better way: Don’t let an OPM mortgage your future

Most higher education institutions will uncover strengths and weaknesses when answering the questions above. Ultimately, to go live and succeed with your online programs while also scaling into the future, you’ll want to be sure you have the right experts at your disposal who know exactly how to handle each need.

“As colleges look to bring programs online or unwind from OPM relationships, they should take a hard, objective look at what they can and cannot do with their current resources,” King urges. “From there, they should develop a plan to invest with an external party (or parties) to fill in any gaps.”

As you navigate this process, questions will inevitably surface. Collegis Education has the answers.

Our organization is made up of experts in marketing, enrollment, course development, faculty development, learning technology and data analytics – every element you need to bring your online programs to life. To learn more, visit our Enrollment Growth page.

Take your courses online with a healthy partnership.

Author: Jess Scherman

Jess Scherman is a content specialist for Collegis Education. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Hamline University.