While online learning experienced significant innovation and growth over the past two decades, it’s most heady days of expansion may be behind us. Online enrollment continues to outpace overall higher education growth, but there is evidence that the supply of online programming is growing faster than demand.
One of the beneficiaries of this new normal has been the online program management (OPM) industry. Eduventures’ analysis suggests that while online headcount has increased by about 30% between 2011 and 2015, the number of online programs grew 110% and the number of schools working with OPMs grew by more than 130% during this period.
Sources: Eduventures OPM and online market research, IPEDS
In this environment, institutions are focused more than ever on how online programs are created and sustained, by whom, and at what price. Rather than striving for net-new students on a national scale, many institutions see online as a new way to serve local audiences, and desire closer integration with on-campus student services and program capabilities. Greater competition for students has also resulted in a sharper focus on the quality of the online student experience.
What are the implications for OPMs?
Against this backdrop, the OPM industry is evolving. Eduventures’ recent survey of 175 online learning leaders indicates that institutions currently engaged with OPMs are expressing a more nuanced set of goals and priorities for these engagements than they have in years past. Compared to results from a similar survey conducted in 2015, institutions continue to exhibit strong interest in marketing and recruitment services, but appear to have a greater expectation that their OPM provider will improve student performance metrics through better online course experience and enhanced support.
Our survey reveals that schools hope to differentiate their online programs through an increased focus on student satisfaction and higher quality. When we asked how institutions judge OPM partnerships, expectations for increased enrollment (91%) remain high, but also prominent are student satisfaction (95%), course quality (93%), improved retention rates (82%), and faculty satisfaction (80%).
Similar patterns are evident when we asked institutions to describe their initial goals for partnering with an OPM. Compared to 2015 data, we observed a modest decline in goals typically associated with OPM services, such as increased enrollment, brand recognition, and market reach. At the same time, 2016 respondents indicated a greater need to improve both student success and the overall quality of their online program offerings. Additionally, they have greater expectations that their OPM provider will enhance faculty support systems and help solve online technology challenges.
Source: Eduventures OPM Market Survey, 2015 and 2016
What’s Next in this New Normal?
As the online market continues to mature, look for the emergence of more flexible service models among OPM providers. While more traditional, all-inclusive OPM relationships will persist, there will be growing interest in shorter contract terms and fee-for-service engagements. It must be recognized that many schools now have a decade or more of experience with online learning, and may see value in running more of the show themselves.
Schools that formed an OPM relationship early and found that it proved essential to online enrollment scale may want to sustain the relationship long-term. Some top-tier schools with well-known brands, many of which have only embraced fully online programs in recent years, have found national online market success with the help of an OPM. As online degrees become ubiquitous, simply offering online programs is no longer a differentiator, but using online learning to open access to elite programs represents a competitive advantage.
In this crowded market, however, when the online opportunity for many schools is local rather than national, many institutions generally may not see sufficient return from an OPM relationship, or may desire more specific assistance that complements existing capabilities. Some OPMs specialize in local and regional brands, but when seemingly every neighboring school offers similar-sounding online programs, the job gets harder.
The new normal in online learning will emphasize choice and flexibility, not just for students, but for institutions as well.
For more information about the methodology of this study and to review the full findings, see the December 2016 Report: “Online Program Management Market Analysis 2016.”