Online program management is perhaps one of the hottest topics in higher education technology today, but it's also somewhat poorly understood. The term Online Program Management, OPM, can be used to describe the process, technology and providers associated with web-based higher education delivery. This analysis uses industry analyst Phil Hill's definition: "organizations (mostly for-profit companies, but with at least one non-profit variation) that help non-profit schools develop online programs" (Hill, 2016).
For technology, enrollment and operations leadership at institutions, this partnership can enable access to services that are difficult to launch from in-house initiatives. Subject matter expert Todd Zipper writes that OPM services may specifically provide access to market research, marketing, enrollment management, student retention, career services, engagement and related technology functions (Zipper, 2016).
For many institutions, the potential benefits of taking programs online is clear, especially as a tool for increasing graduate enrollment and attracting nontraditional or international students. However, the specifics of an OPM agreement may be confusing and difficult to navigate. Read on to discover how the rising popularity of OPM intersects with the higher ed landscape, and learn about expert-recommended considerations for decision-makers.
Institution Goals Vary
There may be a perception that OPM partnership is primarily a pathway to higher enrollment. However, a recent Eduventures survey of 175 organizations revealed more varied goals (Lurie, 2017). The percentages of surveyed organizations and common goals for OPM were:
- Student satisfaction (95 percent)
- Course quality (93 percent)
- Increased enrollment (91 percent)
- Improved retention rates (82 percent)
- Faculty satisfaction (80 percent)
While OPM services and agreements can vary, these technology partnerships may be pursued as more than just a marketing and access tool. For many organizations, this Eduventures study revealed the decision to go with OPM is also closely tied to educational and satisfaction objectives.
OPM Has Potential Beyond Online-Only Graduate Programs
While the Educause study reveals that increasing enrollment is a key goal for 91 percent of institutions, the reality of this goal is likely quite a bit more nuanced. One common motivation for organizations is the oft-cited statistic that nontraditional or adult students comprise 71 percent of the potential enrollment market (Straumsheim, 2017).
OPM is often perceived as an effective or established pathway for graduate program offerings. However, the potential could be equally significant at the undergraduate level, considering the strength of the potential adult student market and international enrollment.
Reaching international students has been described as the "greatest potential" for undergraduate programs in the next five years (Straumsheim, 2017). OPM also does not need to involve online-only, with some organizations realizing this model can serve as a baseline for hybrid program offerings.
The Financial Aspects of OPM
OPM partnerships generally involve a contract, which can vary significantly. However, industry analysis widely concurs that the revenue-sharing agreements driving OPM take years to reach profitability (Strahler, 2015).
Organizations are likely wise to broadly consider OPM options to discover a revenue-sharing model that is best for their business. The financial side of OPM means that long contracts are common, and exiting an unsatisfactory partnership is challenging (Riter, 2017). Evaluating providers is critically important, as is understanding the types of programs that may prove most effective for OPM.
Conclusion: Informing Wise OPM Decisions
Online higher education as an industry is now worth an estimated $1.5 billion (McNeal, 2016). While OPM is far more than a tool for expanding enrollment and providing online course offerings, the potential value of taking programs online remains a key motivation for higher ed decision-makers.
While opinions and success rates vary, organizations are perhaps best advised to recognize that decisions around OPM partnerships are complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach (Riter, 2017). By understanding the wide range of OPM offerings, potential for implementations and financial variations, higher education leadership can best prepare for success.