How OPMs are the Modern Enrollment Managers

Opinion | Higher Education

How OPMs are the Modern Enrollment Managers

By Harris Pastides and Randy Best     Feb 21, 2019

How OPMs are the Modern Enrollment Managers

In the 1970s, when American higher-education faced stagnant enrollment after the Baby Boomers graduated, many colleges and universities turned to outside experts to help them reach a new generation of students. These consultants brought marketing savvy from consumer-product companies to appeal to prospective students, all while admissions deans kept their focus on shaping the academic side of incoming classes. This era ushered in a term and a function now ubiquitous throughout higher education: enrollment management.

Over the past decade, traditional colleges and universities have needed to evolve their enrollment approach again—this time, to catch-up to growing numbers of students taking online classes while confronting new demographic changes ahead. They turned once more to outside help by partnering with Online Program Managers, or OPMs.

These OPMs, like enrollment management consultants decades before, assist universities in providing access to time-pressed, place-bound students for whom online education is the only choice for earning a degree. In doing so, OPMs shifted leadership in the market for online education from for-profit institutions, which dominated the landscape in the early days, to nonprofit institutions.

For another perspective on how OPMs fit into the higher-education landscape, see the related article, The 'O' in 'OPM' Could Stand for 'Outsourcing'

The rise of online education at nonprofit colleges and universities has coincided not only with growing enrollments—more than 6.3 million students took at least one online class in 2016—but also a shift in public perception about quality. Online degrees from public universities are now widely accepted by employers of all kinds and sizes.

By paying most of the up-front costs of launching online degrees as well as the ongoing costs of marketing, technology, recruitment and retention, so-called end-to-end OPMs have allowed universities to jumpstart languishing online efforts or start new ones. A recent study by Eduventures, a consulting company, found that, on average, universities that partnered with an OPM have outperformed their peers in increasing online enrollment.

Despite these successes, the traditional OPM remains widely misunderstood in wide swaths of higher education in four key ways.

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First, there is a tendency to overstate the size and influence of OPMs and label any company that provides some online service as one. The Eduventures report identified only 10 companies out of several dozen that are considered full, comprehensive OPMs. What’s more, these OPMs serve just 10 percent of the higher-education market, according to Eduventures—a few hundred universities out of the several thousand degree-granting institutions in the United States.

Second, there is a belief that universities give up too much academic control in partnering with OPMs. Simply put, OPMs distribute what universities and the faculty members create. OPMs don’t set admissions standards or teach online classes. They will assist faculty members, if asked, to convert their classes for online delivery. Otherwise, OPMs are responsible for student recruitment and retention. Because OPMs make money when students remain enrolled, they are incentivized to focus as much on retention as they do recruitment.

Third, there is a theory that OPMs are partly to blame for rising tuition prices. For the most part, OPMs serve the graduate and professional degree market, where the return on investment is clear to students who have a college diploma and in many cases are already working. OPMs don’t set tuition levels, nor do they receive direct government subsidies or taxpayer funding. Meanwhile, universities are able to offload most of the financial risk to their partners. In general, OPMs don’t recoup their investment or turn a profit until a university reaches a certain enrollment threshold, typically 2,000 online students. That could take three to four years, and potentially longer, given the rising marketing costs to recruit students in a competitive online marketplace.

Finally, there is an assumption by some administrators and faculty members that online programs result in a lower-quality education for students. But various studies in recent years have demonstrated that online courses provide the same or in some cases better outcomes than face-to-face education. The author of one of those online studies, the former president of Princeton University, the late William G. Bowen, said “the most important single result” of his research about online education was that “it called into question the position of the skeptic who says, I don’t want to try this because it will hurt my students.”

Many in higher education tend to romanticize what happens on college campuses, including the actual learning that occurs in traditional classrooms. That’s why online education is also seen as inferior to campus-based instruction. But the jobs of the global information economy we live in demand that more people have more education. This pressing need simply cannot be fulfilled by legacy residential campuses. Online education is critical to scaling education to people who need training and upskilling around the world.

It’s clear from the Eduventures research that OPMs provide a proven track record for university leaders. OPMs have already kept many institutions from enrollment stagnation and will in the future help many more flourish.

Given the evolution of OPMs, perhaps the time has come for a new name to describe them. They are not just managers, but partners with universities. They don’t just oversee programs, but perform operations critical to the overall success and reputation of the institution. And their efforts often result in the expansion of overall enrollment. In many ways, they should be called Enrollment Growth Partners.

Some players in the OPM space who are not traditional comprehensive providers are trying to adopt the mantle of the future with fee-for-service or unbundled offerings. But fee-for-service simply shifts the cost and financial risk to universities. Meanwhile, by unbundling services—say by separating recruitment and retention—outside partners become solely focused on getting students in the door rather than keeping them through graduation.

There’s a strong desire among colleges and universities to develop their own solutions to problems. But the issues facing higher education today—from demographic forces to financial headwinds—are so immense that most institutions need to stop thinking that the only path forward is one that they take alone.

Simply put, many institutions can’t thrive, and some won’t survive, without forming the kind of partnerships needed to reach a growing population of non-traditional students who need easier entry points into our higher-education system to succeed in the modern information economy.

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