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What I Wish I Knew When I Was Working With Our OPM

Holly Tapper

Vice President, Graduate and Online Solutions

November 19, 2020

Having spent more than seven years working with an Online Program Management (OPM) company, I now realize not only the power imbalance involved in outsourcing academic development but also so much more that could have been avoided.Sure, jump-starting online programming is difficult for a small, nonprofit university.And that makes working with an OPM—which typically means “no money down” (but with a revenue share agreement)—appealing.Who doesn’t like an immediate return on investment, even if it’s a fraction of the total?

But as I now realize, taking a longer-term view toward online program management brings significant financial dividends, greater academic control, and positive staff development benefits.

There are many factors to balance when considering an OPM.
With OPMs, institutions need to weigh issues with ROI, control, and transparency.

Return on Investment (ROI)

Some OPMs are taking up to 80 percent of the total tuition revenue of the programs they manage, which has an immediate impact on how much an institution charges its students and how quickly the program will turn profitable. The whole pitch of many OPMs is that there are no “up-front costs,” but that doesn’t mean they are picking up all of the costs. After the university cuts a check to the OPM for its share of the tuition, the school has to pay its faculty, staff, and other fixed costs from the small remainder.

Schools also don’t always need a full overhaul. Sometimes they just need a boost: some mix of a partner that can research the marketplace, generate enrollments, design online courses, or train faculty in technical skills or online pedagogy.An online strategy that enhances current capabilities is more appropriate for financial transformation, with visible results throughout the enrollment funnel. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the institutions that have built internal capabilities in relation to online education had a big head start on everyone else.

Control

Another criticism of OPMs is the for-profit, predatory feel that accompanies their approach. Ten-year contracts are common.And schools end up outsourcing core academic activities like student advising, retention services, and even curriculum development and teaching practices. But at its core, the mission-driven university is the best player to retain these functions, with engaged staff and faculty who (perhaps with a little nudge) are likely eager to learn how to reach and serve online students.

Faculty and students benefit from direct interaction with each other. While some standardization helps move things along, an overly templated approach to curriculum design removes unique faculty perspectives from the process. Instead, the development of online coursework needs to be both coherent and cohesive with the rest of the university.

Among the strongest messages you can use in promoting your online programs is that they are “the same courses, taught by the same faculty, as our classroom program”, or words to that effect.Having a partner that works alongside staff and faculty in learning how to serve/advise/retain online students, and build/teach online courses is essential.

Transparency

Generating demand for online programming should not occur in a black box. Students deserve to know if a university is running an OPM’s program with university branding. And program improvement will occur when vendors provide complete data transparency and open lines of communication.

Market research, analytics, and benchmarking demonstrate the vendor’s good faith in educating university stakeholders. These components provide flexibility in being able to quickly pivot when needed (like when a pandemic hits), and scalability in adding new program enhancements to meet market demand.The best role is for an online program “enabler” who works as a consultant and helps universities improve their own capabilities.

A path forward for online program management

When choosing an online partner, look for immediate results with shorter contracts, not one that locks you into exorbitant fees and long contract periods.Pick a partner that provides strategic planning services and consulting to help your school perform a program life-cycle analysis—and one that shares all the research they do to assess your programs with you. Assess market demand and strategize to determine which programs to offer (and when) using a data-informed process. Optimize your website to increase organic traffic to your programs, rather than sending prospective students to OPM-controlled landing pages that don’t match your brand. And while OPM services typically stop at the students’ graduation, you can find a provider that provides career placement services, uses that data to drive future enrollments, and then recruits your alumni as university ambassadors and donors.

These concerns—focusing on long-term improvements, retaining control over your brand, and improving the student experience—are why institutions are seeking an alternative to online program management. Be sure you look into all the concerns, especially those that may not become apparent until months or even years down the road.

Find a better OPM alternative

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About the Author

Holly Tapper

Holly Tapper offers a strong background as a university administrator leading successful graduate programs, with extensive experience in online learning for nearly 15 years. Prior to coming to RNL, she was director of online operations at...

Read more about Holly's experience and expertise

Reach Holly by e-mail at Holly.Tapper@RuffaloNL.com.


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