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Online Program Management (OPM) or Not? Six Factors to Consider

The EvoLLLution | Online Program Management (OPM) or Not? Six Factors to Consider
Choosing whether or not to partner with an Online Program Management company relies on a number of (often-competing) factors and requires institutional leaders to carefully and consciously prioritize.

In November 2000, I became the director of distance education at a university in the Boston area. There was no staff, no institutional experience in online programming, no marketing expertise to recruit or retain students at a distance, and no internal infrastructure to support these students on any level. To jump start our unit, we partnered with the only Online Program Management (OPM) company at the time, Embanet. We launched a successful online graduate program followed by many others that all enjoyed high enrollment and completion rates.

Our strategy was to get started, learn from Embanet, and invest in building up our internal resources to go it alone after our contract was up. We followed that plan and were successful.

Seventeen years later, there are more than 30 OPMs operating in the US. Most maintain the same core business model that existed in 2000—for a percentage of tuition, they will cover the cost of instruction, course development, marketing and enrollment management, retention, and student support for an institution’s online initiative. For many institutions, aligning with an OPM remains the best way to enter or remain in the online arena without a large up-front investment.

There are, however, options beyond the “all-or-nothing” services requirement of the past. Many OPMs now offer fee-for-service choices. There are also non-OPM companies who can supply marketing, lead generation, and retention services. Institutions can choose to partner with a “traditional” OPM for a total solution, outsource some services, or go it alone by building their internal resources to support all aspects of online programming. The trick is to honestly evaluate your internal resources and culture and go with the best solution for your school.

As you consider the right route for you, keep in mind the following:

1. Be honest about your institution’s strengths and gaps before deciding.

You may feel your institution excels in recruitment, advising and retention, so outsourcing other services makes sense. But before you do, benchmark your strengths against other schools you feel are successful and against best practices, especially in supporting students at a distance. The same goes for course design, academic advising, admissions, and marketing. There are consultants that can help you assess your readiness to provide the level of service students expect—or you may decide these are better outsourced. The small investment you make in time or money to weigh your strengths and potential gaps can help you make the right decision.

2. Have a vision, mission and strategy for online programs.

Vision, mission alignment, and a strategy will dictate your best options for building, financing and expanding online. Think long term, as the decisions you make could lock you into a contract for 7 to 10 years. Why are you going online or expanding your programs? What do you need and want the online initiative to be? If you choose not to renew with your current OPM, who within your institution will take responsibility for the overall effort? No matter the path, create and articulate a strategy and communicate with all shareholders—faculty, administration and staff. There should be no surprises as to why you chose one path over another.

3. If you want to consider an OPM, have a reasonable process for evaluating a partner.

Develop an RFI and distribute it to a list of OPMs. Form a committee to evaluate who should be asked to campus for a presentation. Check what OPMs work with what institutions and why. Your internal committee should represent both the academic and administrative side of the institution. Have an agreed upon check list of what is most important for your initiative.

4. Don’t let a long decision-making process hijack your momentum.

Online programming in no longer new to higher ed. Too many institutions take too long to make decisions, allowing changes in leadership and staffing, summer breaks, shifting resources, etc. interfere with their momentum. The longer it takes, the less likely it will happen. Set a timetable and stick to it.

5. If you choose an OPM, be sure you are comfortable with their team and how they are organized.

An OPM sales team can do a wonderful job of convincing you of their expertise and support, but who will be guiding the day-to-day effort on their behalf when the real work starts? Is their point of contact able to quickly to resolve an issue regardless of whether it’s about marketing or course development? Is it someone who understands your institution? Be sure the OPM truly appreciates the importance of academic governance. One unhappy dean or chairperson can sour a relationship with an OPM quickly, making it more difficult to establish a good working relationship.

6. If you choose not to renew your contract with an OPM, make sure it’s for more than just the obvious reasons.

The ability to keep all tuition revenue is very appealing. Your institution needs to have or be willing to reinvest an equal sum in building your internal resources to seamlessly support online students and faculty once the OPM is out of the picture. Be realistic about what is needed to offer the same level of service that existed with the OPM.

The decision-making process of whether to go/stay with an OPM can be time-consuming. The results, however, provide a blueprint for future success and stability for your online initiative for years to come.

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