Scaling Online Programs: Strategic Decisions for Growth

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)February 23, 2023
Andrea Carroll-Glover

From Capella, to Rasmussen, to Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, Andrea Carroll-Glover has led online programs for big institutions, small institutions, and helped at every other size and shape since she began working in higher education 15 years ago. Last month she and I talked about the Building Blocks that need to be in place in order to scale online programs.

This month we are talking about some of the strategic questions that institutions need to really consider critically as they lay their plans to meet student demand for increased access to online programming. When you consider that new IPEDS data indicate that at both the graduate AND undergraduate levels there is now near parity in those students who choose to enroll in all online and all classroom courses, the time has come to refine and enhance your online program and related support system) scaling strategies.

Before entering higher education, Andrea’s background included building sales, marketing and product strategies and solutions for tech-startups. This foundation is of increasing use to her as she helps higher education institutions think through the critical issues involved in scaling online systems and related support ecosystems. Here are some of her thoughts on three critical questions:

How do you think schools ought to think through decisions on what aspects of online expansion to do themselves and those for which they would have more success by finding a strategic partner?

Andrea: These decisions become clear when, prior to making a lot of “one off” decisions, key institutional stakeholders sit down and work through an internal assessment of their strengths and weaknesses in all of the areas that will be affected by online expansion. I’ve seen a lot of misuse of the classic SWOT analysis, with past practice making some think that this is just “busy work.” The reality is that a thoughtful process is fundamental to success, but the real value comes after it is done and the stakeholders and leaders ask “so what now?”

It must be an honest assessment—made by multi-levels of stakeholders—that answers questions like:

  1. What are we really good at? What are we not so good at?
  2. What are our capabilities with the people, the resources, and the technologies we have today?
  3. What is our capacity to invest in building any of these capacities internally?
  4. Will it be less expensive to build them internally or find an external partner?
  5. With limited resources, what are the things that we MOST want to grow our capacity to do?

Through this initial process, you begin to see the cross-functional nature of the array of stakeholders who need to be involved in the assessment as well as who will enable the success of future strategies. Some of these cross-functional leaders to include:

  1. Executive leadership to marshal support, priorities across institutional initiatives.
  2. Financial leadership to both explain current resources and to provide resources necessary to build the capacity to grow.
  3. Technical leadership and staff to provide insight to current technical capacity, identify gaps, and to champion the technology transformation and innovation necessary to scale.
  4. Enrollment and marketing leaders and staff to provide insight into current practices and the future resources needed to be competitive in a whole new domain.
  5. Representation from your registrar, bursar, financial aid, and other offices to provide a realistic assessment of current capacity to change core processes and practices.
  6. Academic stakeholders who can honestly assess the institution’s ability to not just translate, but to transform the curriculum to high quality online instruction.

At the beginning of this process, in the middle, and at the end, the “ground rules” need to be clear: it is okay to admit that there might be areas that you’re not great at, in fact doing so it often the pathway to success. You also need to acknowledge that you can’t do it all. Again, doing so is often the pathway to success. Finally, you need to be open to the idea that finding the right partner may be your best option for some things—and believe that doing so will allow your internal operations to focus more intently on things fundamental to your institutional mission.

Are there things that the institution must do themselves?

Andrea: Everyone expects that the answer to that question to be—all things academic. However, I never say “never” or “shouldn’t.” We know that the institution must retain ownership of the curriculum of each course that it offers, and that institutions most frequently seek to retain functions focused on teaching and learning. This is the core of what they do, and the desire to retain control of that makes sense.
Having said that, the path to the highest quality online instruction is very complex, and I have seen a number of institutions who have benefited from outside support. Why? Because they need to learn how to design effective online courses—which goes well beyond a great syllabus. Faculty need coaching in transforming their curriculum in this new space. They then also need coaching in best practices of high-quality teaching in the online environment.

From the student perspective external expertise may also be important. Today’s students are likely well ahead of their instructors in levering online technologies to do all kinds of things in their lives. They will embrace all kinds of online student support services (writing center, tutoring, etc.) because they have grown up with these types of things elsewhere. To meet the expectations of these students—to put the newest technologies like AI and ChatGPT to use in coursework—is the best way to prepare the workforce of the mid-21st century. Outside support may be essential. This allows internal stakeholders to concentrate on the fundamentals.

What are the things that are most often beyond a modest sized school’s ability to do themselves effectively?

Andrea: We’ve already talked about the challenges in creating world-class instruction, but the other things that are most frequently beyond the capacity of internal teams focus on marketing and recruitment efforts. These “front end” activities focused on attracting, enrolling, and retaining students are areas in almost constant change, and just keeping abreast of the latest best practices and technologies can be a full-time job.

Digital marketing platforms ebb and flow, SEO tactics stop working, Google algorithms change, and the cost to be “seen” digitally continues to rise. A lot of institutions just don’t have tremendous capacity (or frankly expertise in non-traditional populations) in their marketing teams, and so they truly benefit from an outside partner who can come alongside and help them in those areas.

The “speed to lead” expectations of adult/online students today are often beyond the ability of small internal teams. The typical student expects a personal response within minutes and no less than two hours. Things such as chat bots, video responses, emails, or a callback within a short period of time have gone from “nice to do” to “must do” in a very short time, and many institutions are not currently equipped for that kind of responsiveness. A partner can help with that, and likely do these things more affordably than you can do build them internally.

And then finally, the student success piece—nurturing students throughout that journey. As I look at institutional strategic plans, many include student retention goals as one way to increase graduation rates. How do you do that? Through student success and persistence through retention. However, many institutions don’t have formalized ways of engaging students throughout their entire life cycle. They might have individuals within a department who reach out, but it’s inconsistent, and so the student experience is compromised. There are some great partners available today that can help institutions accelerate and improve a strategic, thoughtful, consistent outreach approach across their online programs, underpinned by technologies that improve the student experience but that are hard to build from scratch.

RNL designs partnership solutions to help institutions scale their online programs with the building blocks they have, filling in the gaps as needed. Contact us today for a complimentary consultation and we will set up a time to talk about how we can help.

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About the Author

Scott Jeffe

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.

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