In the last couple of decades, as online learning was steadily being recognized by millions of students as a convenient way to earn a highly prized academic degree, most senior officers at the nation’s colleges and universities paid little attention, dithered or dabbled. When higher ed leaders woke up during the pandemic, they went to their digital cupboard and found it was bare.

The earlier indifference to virtual education was largely the result of having moved up academic ranks as part of the pre-digital generation, following the resistance of many faculty who expressed widespread hostility to online teaching as being a poor alternative to classroom instruction. And many were thwarted by their lack of understanding of how remote instruction actually worked, since they had never taken an online class, and had certainly never taught one.

There was also a common belief among higher ed leaders—as there still is—that building online infrastructure is far too costly. And as enrollments in traditional programs declined, it left colleges struggling to balance their budgets and much less able to finance new ventures in virtual instruction.

Ironically, colleges that invested early, when so many were hesitant, were able to build courses and programs at lower cost. A quarter of a century ago, when I helped launch a number of online master’s degrees at Stevens Institute of Technology, an engineering school in Hoboken, NJ, we didn’t employ instructional designers or videographers. And we didn’t have to dig into our reserves to finance pricey digital-recruitment campaigns. None of those costly resources were essential drivers of online enterprises as they are today. At the turn of this century, adventurous faculty ventured out into cyberspace on their own, propelled by their own talent, accompanied merely by a laptop and internet access.

Recognizing their failure to prepare for a digital future—after a year of so-so emergency remote instruction—higher ed leaders are now trying to make up for lost virtual decades by rushing to partner with online program managers (OPMs), commercial vendors who help colleges deliver and market online programs. Thanks to the pandemic, OPMs now reap the benefits of higher ed’s procrastination. Not until the health crisis forced campuses to close physical classrooms did so many colleges see the cost of their failure to act sooner.

As On-Campus Retreats, Online Speeds Forward

Senior higher ed officers have realized how severely battered the pandemic left U.S. higher ed. According to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment fell by nearly 6 percent. Community colleges were hit especially hard, with enrollment dipping severely, by more than 11 percent. While graduate enrollment continued its steady climb at a 4.4 percent increase, overall, higher ed fell more than 4 percent from a year ago.

graph of the rise of online enrollments while on-campus enrollments fall
Source: Mind Wires

With the pandemic intensifying the decline, postsecondary education leaders have been anxiously watching the discouraging trend over many years; enrollment slipped by a million from 20.7 to 19.7 million from 2012 to 2019. The graph above, depicting federal data shrewdly reshuffled by edtech trend-spotter Phil Hill, reveals a steady on-campus decay while online races ahead.

Hill’s analysis uncovers the bad news that if you remove students who don’t take any online courses, total on-campus enrollment actually plummeted by a troubling three million. In sharp contrast, during the same period, the number of students taking exclusively online courses jumped by a million, and those taking some but not all online courses gained another million.

That doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the future of on-campus higher education, but it suggests a bright future for online education.The disdain for digital education conveyed by many senior academic officers for so long now seems foolish.

Partnering with OPMs

So how will colleges who didn’t build online programs sooner now attract students to the virtual academic world as the pandemic ends? How will faculty learn how to deliver effective courses virtually—not just their old lectures via Zoom? One way a rising number of colleges have found is to sign on with an OPM.

The hockey-stick graph below, prepared by Holon IQ, an edtech market research firm, represents the present surge in OPM partnerships—slow in the last decade, followed by a steep climb during the pandemic in 2020, and with a big bump in the first quarter this year.

graph of rise of OPM deals by colleges

The chart is an arresting depiction of the race by colleges to build online programs, even at a time of budget challenges. Colleges signed up to provide themselves with technologies and services they had failed to mobilize on their own—responsive online student support, experienced instructional designers and savvy videographers; plus tools for student collaboration, assessment, remote testing, course authoring, multimedia and dozens of other applications.

Not least among these is the sweep of inventive teaching approaches made possible by introducing digital instruction, from video streaming to HyFlex delivery. On the enterprise side are skills more aligned with business than scholarship—digital recruitment, call-center operations, video studio production, budgeting and management. With most academic leaders trained as scholars, online competencies fall far outside their comfort zone. No wonder senior officers are rushing to fill the gap with experts outside the university gates.

OPMs are especially seductive because they help finance programs up front. In exchange for paying startup costs of new online programs, most OPMs reap a fifty percent share of online tuition revenue generated.

OPMs also tout more-sophisticated techniques for bringing in new students than conventional marketing efforts at other institutions. Their approaches typically do better than what colleges offer on their own, though OPM campaigns are often more expensive as well.

Of course, as with every digital service provider, not all clients are happy. Some, troubled by inferior OPM service, have parted company with their partners and are now on their own, often having learned a thing or two.

Colleges Succeed on Their Own Online

Successful online programs have been doing it all on their own for years, growing online student populations in the tens of thousands. With hundreds of colleges offering online degrees, some have drawn more than 50,000 enrollments, with a couple even exceeding 100,000.

These early market leaders in online higher education quickly filled their virtual cupboards with exactly what online enterprises and their students needed. None of them partnered with OPMs. In large measure, these big virtual colleges are the forerunners of OPMs, leading the way with methods that OPMs adopted and now market to laggards. Calling attention to news this spring that colleges with sizable online enrollments are speeding ahead, Phil Hill noted that “one of the biggest factors is prior investment in online.”

For most colleges—excluding highly selective schools that never lack applicants—continuing with depleted digital fare is not a healthy long-term solution. OPMs are merely a stopgap therapy. The prescription for colleges with insufficient digital infrastructure is to find a way to sustain a healthy virtual diet, even if they use an OPM provider temporarily to help them get through an immediate digital crisis.

OPMs have been good at relieving academic pain provisionally. What is needed now is a durable, self-care remedy.