Master’s degree programs are the bright spot in an otherwise bleak forecast for the wider degree market. In a year where undergraduate enrollment has fallen more than 4%, master’s enrollment is up 3.5%.

As schools assess their online program strategies, however, they should know it’s not always a level playing field. Either seen or unseen, hundreds of master’s programs are powered by online program management companies (OPMs), making this space all the more competitive.

How is the rush to put master’s programs online taking shape among OPMs, and what should you know about the strategies of these companies? Here are two takeaways from our most recent research .

Looking Under the Hood

In 2020, Eduventures surveyed institutions both pre- and mid-COVID to gauge their current relationships and intended paths forward with OPMs. We are also refining our database, with the help of our partner LISTedTECH, to better understand the performance of some 280 institutions that work with OPMs to offer over 700 master’s programs.

For this research, we looked at master’s level programs at U.S. institutions partnering with providers like Wiley (including Learning House), 2U, Pearson, Academic Partnerships, All Campus, Bisk, Everspring, Noodle, ReLearnit, Emerge, and degree programs offered through EdX and Coursera.

Among many findings that will be revealed in a forthcoming report, we learned:

COVID-19 may strengthen existing OPM relationships, but it did not lead to explosive growth at the master’s level.

Figure 1 shows the overall distribution of newly reported online master’s programs at four-year institutions—either new programs or formerly face-to-face programs that are now being offered in a distance format. It compares this to the distribution of new OPM-powered master’s programs tracked by Eduventures.

Online master’s programs, which make up about 22% of all master’s programs, have grown strongly over the last eight years with 2013 showing the greatest distribution of newly reported online programs*. But the growth rate then fell post-2016. OPM programs have seen steady growth over the last eight years—especially in 2018 when 28% of programs were added. Then COVID-19 came along.

 

How do new OPM programs track with the overall growth in online master's programsFigure 1.

 

Figure 1 shows that, so far, schools have not responded to COVID-19 by rushing into partnerships with OPMs. 2020 shows the lowest distribution of new OPM master’s programs than any other year—just 5% share of new programs—highlighting the impact of COVID. Additionally, Eduventures CHLOE 5 Survey, fielded in June 2020, found that a majority of institutions without existing OPM contracts did not plan to hire an OPM as they managed the longer-term impact of COVID-19.

In combination, these findings indicate that the overall growth in net new OPM master’s degree programs has—with the exception of 2018—been steady rather than explosive. While the initial impact of COVID-19 has slowed OPM master’s level growth as institutions went into emergency mode, we anticipate increased year-over-year OPM growth in 2021 as institutions un-pause previously-laid plans and reckon with a post-COVID landscape.

For many schools with online ambitions, especially those with limited budgets or who had a rough go of emergency online, the resources and expertise an OPM partnership offers will be more attractive than ever before. It is worth noting, however, that OPMs can be increasingly selective since not every program can gain outsized market share online. Future growth will likely be focused on bringing existing master’s programs online permanently after being forced into remote instruction as a result of COVID.

The OPM playbook concentrates on the most popular fields of study, but also diversification.

The business goal of an OPM is straightforward: earn revenue by growing online programs. This has led OPMs to, unsurprisingly, focus on programs that attract the most students. Figure 2 shows the percentage of all online master’s programs compared to OPM programs. The fields of study with the highest enrollments, such as business, education, and healthcare, have the most online programs, as well as the most OPM-powered programs. Yet OPMs are even more concentrated in business, healthcare, and public administration, and relatively less active in shrinking fields (education), asset-intensive ones (engineering) and the long tail (“all others”).

 

What fields of study are most common for OPMs compared to the broader online master's marketFigure 2.

 

This strategy appears to be working. Eduventures 2020 OPM survey, fielded prior to COVID shifting all courses online, asked institutions what their primary reasons for partnering with OPMs were and, unsurprisingly, enrollment and growing tuition revenue were at the top. Most schools indicated that OPMs, concentrating on larger, faster-growth programs, were meeting or exceeding enrollment goals.

But OPMs are wise to the need for diversification. Our analysis also indicates that most institutions work with OPMs on two or more master’s programs. While OPM-powered program portfolios will often include one or two “big ticket” programs like an MBA or a master’s of public health, they also commonly include more novel programs in growing fields, such as healthcare informatics, strategic communications, or data science.  For institutions, this common OPM strategy should be taken into consideration when assessing the competitive market for such programs.

Eduventures anticipates the investment in diverse fields of study to increase as market conditions present far less green space than they did a decade ago. The rapid expansion of a variety of non-degree programs, many powered by OPMs, is also an indicator of shifting tides. It is important to note that while some institutions will elect to bring new programs online, it is also becoming increasingly common to launch a specialization in one of the more common, high enrollment programs such as an MBA with a specialization in business analytics or an MPH with a specialization in community health. We see both strategies unfolding in the coming years.

The Bottom Line

The core business that brought OPMs to the fore—delivering master’s programs online at scale—remains foundational to the industry. Despite the COVID-19 slowdown, Eduventures predicts that the number of new OPM-powered master’s programs will pick up in 2021 and beyond. This will mean a boost in new programs across a more diverse set of academic disciplines as institutions get back on track and the pandemic accelerates and normalizes creation of robust, student-centric online learning.

For institutions revisiting their online strategies, with or without the help of third-party partners, understanding the OPM landscape and the impact that OPMs—armed with well-funded and sophisticated marketing engines—have in their regional markets is essential to making informed program decisions.

 

Do you have questions about the OPM landscape and how it impacts your institution? Connect with your dedicated Client Research Advisor to schedule an analyst advising session.

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Michael Miller

Eduventures Senior Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA
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