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Internalizing Online Program Management: How Keeping Things Under One Roof Can Push Progress

Outsourcing Online Program Management is a quick and easy way to get the ball rolling on OPMs, but keeping things in house and operating the way the institution wants can yield better results.
Outsourcing Online Program Management is a quick and easy way to get the ball rolling on OPMs, but keeping things in house and operating the way the institution wants can yield better results.

Keeping OPM in house can lead to earlier student engagement and higher rates of student success. Outsourcing is a quick way to get the ball rolling, but what is easy may not be what is best for the students—or the staff.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did UAGC decide to shift its strategy from using an outsourced OPM to focusing on more in-house course development and instructional design?

Paul Pastorek (PP): The objective from our perspective was simple: we wanted to bring everything and everyone together under one roof with one mission, which we knew would be better for our students. To do that, we needed to take complete control of all functions that were being provided by the OPM, with a particular focus on our academic and admissions strategy. The OPM was providing admissions, enrollment, and marketing, and we see that as essential to our university operation and functioning in tandem with the academics. In order for students to succeed, they need to be prepared to engage in the academics, and being able to control the enrollment and marketing process allows us to identify those students who are truly ready, and to assist those who are not to help get them ready.

With a third party, you’re going to get result that is but influenced by their own internal decision-making processes, preferences, and business practices. Additionally, through the efficiencies gained through this reorganization, we’re also able to invest far more of the resources exactly where they should be – with our students – by terminating the fees and expenses we were paying to the OPM.  Lastly, it improves efficiency because we don’t have to work through a hierarchical structure on the other side to execute on the marketing, enrollment, financial aid, and student advising agenda. The bottom line is that taking full control of these functions enables us to achieve our destiny, and to fully serve students in a more effective, cost-efficient and impactful way.

Evo: Are there administrative functions that are foundational for high-quality online program development that really are best suited toward in-house support rather than outsourcing?

PP: When we look at the work that our OPM was performing, we weren’t able to engage the students until they’re actually admitted into the university. There is a lot of communication and exchange of information taking place long before the student is actually admitted. If you have an outside OPM providing that information, it can be influenced by their company objectives. They want to secure a student, but maybe not always in the correct place. We had a very good working relationship with our colleagues at the OPM, but their employees were not our employees. You have to work diligently to assure that the experience that the enrollment advisors are providing to students is consistent with the outcomes we want for our ’students.

That’s an extra management step. It’s not always effective. We wanted to have full control over the entire process. In addition to enrollment, the OPM was providing student advising. This happens after students are admitted when they have challenges outside the classroom. Once again, we have to work through another company to be able to manage those student experiences and ensure that the OPM is offering students the care and guidance they need in alignment with the university’s core values and mission. I am very excited about the fact that these services are now being provided by our people and we can more directly bear on the conversations that those student advisors are having with students to create the kind of student experience we’re looking for.

Evo: How do you expect the shift from outsourced OMP to in-house owned online ed to support your goals for scale and growth over the next five years?

PP: By placing all of our services under one roof, we will see increased efficiency. We’ll see reduced costs, and we’ll be better able to make good on our commitments to students. The way I see our mission, we have a very important and precise social impact mission, which is not necessarily consistent with for-profit businesses like OPMs. Our mission is to offer non-traditional learners degrees, credentials, and educational experiences that are tightly aligned with the needs of the labor market and their communities—and can help them to achieve their career and personal aspirations. And when you outsource major elements of the overall student experience, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a for-profit entity is going to be counter to that, but they have their own goals and their own bottom line. They have to make a profit, and that mission can gradually become inconsistent with our mission.

Evo: What are some of the characteristics that you’re going to focus on to make sure that UAGC is differentiated to be competitive in the local and regional markets, but globally as well?

PP: We are a very student centric university. We’ve gained a reputation around providing really strong support to students so that they can be successful. We have an initiative we live by called the Culture of Care, which really zeros in on the fact that one conversation, one word of encouragement, one faculty member has the power to influence the outcome for students. Our faculty takes steps that are rarely taken in online universities, that focus on empathy and advocacy for our students, because our students are not traditional college students. Our students are in the workforce. Some of our students have had traumatic life experiences and even been told they’d never succeed in life. Sometimes they come to us with no credit or experience in a university, or without a job, and are looking to make themselves better. And they’re experiencing life every day. And we want to be as empathetic as we can. At the same time, we have to be rigorous. And we’ve tried to really strike a balance between those two demands. We make it easier to transfer credits. We offer more start dates than the average online university, so we make it more convenient. And we have five-week classes that enable students to move through one class at a time. For some students, it can be more challenging for them to manage 3, 4, 5 subjects like on a traditional campus. And we approach it with that more distinctive characteristic. We’re also anticipating that there will be new innovations that we deploy around synchronous learning, around student engagement, and around group-based learning experiences for our students. And I think with the development of these ideas fully fleshed out over the next 12 to 18 months, we’re going to create a greater assurance that students will be more successful. And our results will begin to show that.

Evo: What advice would you share with other institutional leaders that might be looking to evaluate their existing OPM partnerships to determine whether they are driving the value they need?

PP: If I had one particular message to give, it’s to develop a complete alignment on the basic issues of the elements of an OPM relationship. And I would start in the alignment by addressing who are we reaching out to and positioning ourselves to serve? What is our particular university’s value proposition? And you have to be careful not to let the OPM market to whomever they wish. When I find that OPMs can come up with names of people from all kinds of different sources, but if they’re not the kinds of students that fit your value proposition, then you’re doing a disservice to those students and you’re ultimately doing a disservice to the university because those students will not stick. So it’s critical to ensure that your relationship with an OPM provider—or any third-party entity, really—is aligned with your mission and value proposition.

Secondly, it’s important to align on the incentives that are in place to support the development of online programs. I find sometimes that OPMs can be focused on new enrollment, often providing incentives related to the number of new students. As a university we want total enrollment to grow, and a significant part of that is to increase retention. New enrollment is important, but retaining existing students is even more important in my mind. And sometimes OPMs can get crosswise.  Out of a desire to grow enrollment, we forget that the most important form of enrollment is retaining current students. So getting alignment on the enrollment aspect is critical, so it’s imperative that the institution put in place the kind of virtual, hybrid, or in-person support services and tools that can help retain those current students and help overcome any challenges that they may experience on their path to completion.

Evo: UAGC was formally created in 2020 with the establishment of UAGC, Inc. and its acquisition of Ashford University. What do you want folks to know about UAGC?

PP: We are building on the positives of Ashford University. Ashford University, before we acquired it, had graduated well over one hundred thousand students. UAGC has graduated 17,095 students since its establishment in December 2020. We have had a positive impact on working adults’ and nontraditional students’ lives. My belief is that in most cases, they’ve gone on to use these credentials and improve their lives and do better for themselves. We aspire to make that even more meaningful for students, but we are affecting first generation college students, we’re affecting graduates who were told that they were going to be lucky to graduate from high school. You know, we’re taking on students who want something better for themselves, but often don’t have the exposure or the experience. And it’s a very challenging task, but one that we love.

I’ve met alumni from around the country. I just met one the other day formerly with the Harlem GlobeTrotters, who received a bachelor’s degree from Ashford, while he was in Europe playing for the GlobeTrotters. And he inspired four of his teammates to get their diplomas. I met another young lady who we honored at our graduation recently, who is working in a business and over a very short period of time, finished her degree and got her diploma. When you meet people like this, and you see their struggle – in her case, her family struggle, her background or economic struggle, and then getting work, but really wanting to better herself.

And in both of these cases, they would not have earned their diplomas if not for the opportunity to complete them online. And I’ll tell you one final story. A young man, a Navy Seal serving in Afghanistan, was pursuing an online business degree with us. He graduated and went on to get a master’s at USC and is now a very successful technology CEO. You know, here’s a guy who would tell you his personal life story, and he did it at our commencement. He grew up in a community that was very, very challenged, and enlisted in military service. The experience paid off for him, but he didn’t have the educational experiences he needed to transition to a civilian career path. And here he was, after he would go out and do his work during the day you know, keeping peace in Afghanistan, come home at night and finish his degree. We’re able to provide this kind of opportunity to people.

We’re able to provide university credentials that are quality and that are reasonably priced and that can get people into a new world for themselves. That’s inspiring work, and that’s what I love about UAGC.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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