NKHokeBy Nancy K. Hoke, Partner Edu Alliance Group

It is well recognized that online education is now a key player in higher education. According to U.S. News and World Report January 11, 2018 article by Jordan Friedman called Study: More Students are Enrolling in Online Courses 4,700 higher education institutions, more than 6.3 million students in the U.S. took at least one online course in fall 2016.

As higher education struggles to meet their budgets, many consider entering or expanding their online programs to increase students and increase cash flow. As more programs are offered and the battle to attract students escalates, how online programs are created, marketed, and managed becomes a key part of making an online degree program successful.

Online education is a complex and rapidly growing segment of education in the new century. Creating a sophisticated, successful online program takes time and investment.

In reviewing the U.S. News and World Report ranking report for Best Online Programs, top ten ranked schools offering a fully online Bachelors degree are the following

Rank Institution Enrollment 2016-17
1 Ohio State University 266
2 Embry Riddle University 15,267
3 Temple University 247
4 Arizona State University 29,621
5 Utah State University 1,599
6 Oregon State University 5,424
7 Penn State World Campus 8,415
8 University of North Carolina Wilmington 1,139
9 Colorado State University – Global Campus 11,779
10 University of Oklahoma 1,234

The top 10 list has a wide diversity of institutions, and the enrollment figures vary widely from the low 200’s to a high of nearly 30,000. To learn how US News determined the rankings go to Methodology: Best Online Bachelor’s Program Rankings.

Many of the topped ranked institutions have been offering online courses since early in 2000. They have grown as the technology, and the pedagogy for online has developed and progressed. To enter into online as a new stream of funds is very tempting but creating and providing quality accredited online courses is complex, time intensive, and requires a significant investment.

Outsourcing aspects or your entire online program is another option. There are many companies that are identified as Online Program Management (OPMs). These companies offer an institution an online program that is basically “soup to nuts.” They will even provide the initial investment. Companies such as 2U, Pearson/Embanet, Learning House, and Bisk/University Alliance offer complete packages that include marketing, recruitment, course creation, and admissions. An overall view of the OMPs is provided in the article from by Phil Hill of e-Literate titled, Online Program Management: An updated view of the market landscape.

Several writers point out that while working with a OPM may launch your new online program quickly, it may take 5 – 6 years before the university begins to see significant tuition dollars. Most OPMs require that they recover their initial investment before the revenue sharing plan is implemented.

Paxton Riter in his article Five Myths about OPMs in Educause March 13, 2017, states:

Over the years it became evident to me that in the rush to move courses online, the revenue-share model encouraged a cookie-cutter approach to online learning that all too often, misaligned incentives in ways that put scale ahead of quality and revenues before outcomes.”

Careful research and negotiations must be in place to assess the best combination of outsourced elements and those that remain within the University.

If your institution is considering building online programs and courses into your curriculum or contracting with an OPM, please keep in mind these critical points:

  1. Remember your mission – In the article written by W. Kent Barnds on Navigating the Maelstrom: 8 Tips for Enrollment Managers – “Mind your institution’s mission – in difficult times it’s too easy to stray from your institution’s mission by adding academic … programs that don’t fit….” This certainly holds true when considering adding an online program. Where are you unique? What do you do better than other institutions?
  2. Identify key stakeholders and make them a part of the planning process. Make them an active and key player in the decision process for your online program. Online often makes faculty very nervous. How will the integrity of the course work be protected? Will the requirements for the online course meet or exceed the requirements of the face-to-face course? How will assessments be administered?
  3. Invite local employers to participate in the online program plan – Find the industries and the corporations that would be interested and have employees who would make strong candidates for your program
  4. Creating and implementing the marketing campaign – To attract and enroll students who fit the profile and demographics of your institution and community. You must consider that they will meet the entrance requirements and be able to achieve success in their course work. The majority of online programs have found success enrolling students who have had some college courses and are looking to complete their degree. The self-discipline required for online work is often not yet developed in first-year students.
  5. Develop policies and best practices for online courses and programs – Faculty and students need an additional set of policies and best practices for your online courses. These policies will need to focus on security, communication, and academic integrity. The ability to cheat in an online course is one of the major concerns of faculty, and from the very beginning, the policies and assignments must be designed to provide a secure and quality environment. The other concern is finding funding and release time for faculty to design and create the online content.
  6. Provide ongoing professional development for faculty, admissions officers, and student services– As you move into online, it is critical to train your faculty in the skills needed for teaching online. It is an environment that is not for every faculty member (or for every student). Training in the online pedagogy (including building interactive components) and instructional technology should be required before teaching a fully online course.
  7. Create an online orientation – If you are recruiting undergraduate and graduate students, create a separate orientation for each group. Pay special attention to providing training and support for your institution’s policies on integrity and the program’s citation requirements and formatting. Additional sections for orientation should include using the virtual library, grading policies, and procedures for questions and complaints.
  8. Create online courses that provide certification – In working with your community consider adding courses that allow an employee to achieve a certificate in a specific skill. These courses may be closely designed with the work place in mind, and the company may provide additional funds for the course building and management.
  9. Building your own online program and courses – This will take significant investment and time. Long gone are the days where pasting PowerPoint lectures online and adding a few online quizzes meet the requirements of a quality University course. Building a quality online course requires a team. In most cases, a course requires a faculty member (subject matter expert), an instructional designer (may provide skills in technology and instructional design), video/audio production, and an ongoing evaluation process as the course is created. Other issues to consider are copyright for written and video content, assessment strategies, and creating an evaluation process for the courses. An excellent reference for this is Quality Matters.
  10. Student Services must be available 24/7 – Successful student services is a key part of online programs and especially for retention of students and the accreditation process.

In conclusion I will state that too often I have observed that many in higher education believe that “if they build it, they will come”. The online environment is no longer the new frontier, it is well established and to enter the arena and be successful takes time, dollars, and, patient.

Nancy Hoke’s article “Is Online the Answer to Increase Student Enrollment?” is a part of a series called: Things That Keep Higher Education Leaders Awake at Night. Edu Alliance thanks Nancy as well as our Partners, Advisors and Friends for their valuable contributions and insights.

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.


Presidential Leadership and Crisis Management within Institutions at Risk

Steven JonesBy Dr. Stephen JonesPresident/CEO of Great Blue Heron in Madison, Alabama and a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.

What gives me license to write about presidential leadership, crisis management, and universities at risk? First, an unorthodox entry to higher education administration – 12 years in the paper and allied products manufacturing industry right out of a bachelor’s degree. A mid-30s hard-drive to a PhD with a wife and two kids, at a level of personal and professional maturity far beyond most much-younger, still green graduate students. Nine years advancing through the faculty ranks and tenure at Penn State. Reporting directly to the president at three subsequent universities, and then serving as president at four universities. I have always thought of myself as an industrial forester who just happened to stumble into higher education administration. I have held tightly to the belief that universities are businesses, albeit not-for-profit. Neither the Fortune 500 company I served or any of the nine universities that issued me a paycheck could spend money it did not have.

My most recent CEO gig gave me a very special perspective. As a six-month, time-certain Interim President, I had to leap into the deep end, assess the context, evaluate the team, compare actual to potential, and make near-immediate adjustments (major and minor) to bridge the gap to permanent leadership. The Board asked me to pave the way for an exemplary president who could hit the ground at full speed, with most of the obstacles, potholes, and road debris already addressed. I repeated the refrain often that my preceding six positions had given me ample opportunity to make most of the mistakes available for learning. The definition of experience – that thing you get right after you needed it! I came to the Interim Presidency with a great deal of hard-won experience.

Assessing University Status, Risks, and Potential

I will speak from my aggregate experience, both as a CEO and on senior administrative teams. I’ve cloaked the identity of individual universities. We’ve all seen the criteria signaling financial risk. The more boxes checked, the greater the vulnerability:

  • Rural location
  • Poorly endowed
  • Non- or weakly-selective admissions
  • Excessive deferred maintenance
  • Significant debt
  • High discount rate
  • Declining enrollment/revenue
  • Weak alumni base and tepid annual giving

Closer inspection might reveal other serious problems that reach beyond risk to imminent peril:

  • High Accounts Receivable
  • Composite Financial Index already in the Zone or below
  • Successive years of budget cutting and mid-year expenditure reductions
  • Insistence upon saving as the way to prosperity
  • Satisfaction with adequate
  • Poor retention and low graduation rate
  • Uninspired leadership – both Board and administration
  • Absence of passion and purpose
  • No clear brand, identity, distinction, or reputation

My Ecosystem Approach — As a forester and doctoral-trained applied ecologist, I view universities the same way I might any organism in a natural ecosystem. My doctoral research evaluated soil-site productivity. That is, the potential for a given set of conditions to produce biomass and forest products and services. Often, the actual forest in place may express past treatments and poor management, and not be truly reflective of the potential. I used independent measures of soil, slope, fertility, topography, and other objective metrics to assess potential. If a great site is supporting a poorly performing stand, then investments in rehabilitation could return dividends. If the site is poor, no investment will return dividends. The same is true for universities.

Is a particular university worth attempting salvage and rehabilitation? Is the site (the collective factors constituting potential) such that a new approach, refreshed leadership, and rededicated efforts can right it? Is it time to cut losses and abandon the institution? Not every university at risk can be saved. Not every Board can rise above itself. Some CEOs cannot lead even a healthy institution. Some leaders cannot ask the right questions, much less answer them.

A university with which I am familiar brought on a new president two months after it had added a million dollars in long term debt just to meet operating expenses on a $15 million annual budget. It had just opened a new residence hall, named after a Board member who donated a sum equal to just four percent of the total project cost. Its endowment was a mere $2 million. Deferred maintenance costs were excessive. For example, brick spalled from the south side of the gymnasium. Enrollment sagged. The discount rate exceeded 55 percent. The Board held the unenviable reputation as the most inept of all institutions in the state. The Board repeatedly refused to approve entrepreneurial ventures… efforts that might have lifted the university to a recovery ramp. This institution stood at the abyss. Salvageable? Not with that Board. With a new Board and outlook? Perhaps.

I know of another university, well maintained with solid potential, exciting programs (existing and envisioned), competent faculty, and manageable debt. Yet, the administration had a fatalistic attitude. That is, believing that decreasing state funding and weak high school graduation demographics led to an inevitable spiral of lessening enrollment, revenue, staffing, etc. Satisfaction with adequate, suppression of ambition, and acceptance of mediocrity destined the institution to a slow, inexorable decline. Instead, new leadership ascertained what stood within reach, awakened the institution to its potential… stirred the Board, administration, faculty, staff, alumni, and its broad community to rise far above what had been accepted as inevitable.

The university (in my metaphor, the forest) flourished under innovative, challenging, and inspired leadership. Rich soil on a wonderful site nourished recovery and response. All the ingredients were in place. A systematic assessment, innovative ventures, strategic programmatic investments, organizational realignment, critical senior-level adjustments, and an infusion of passion, power, and purpose into a decent Board set the university afire.

Failing, or even falling short of potential performance, constitutes a crisis. Better to anticipate and address the situation proactively. In the first example, the hole had already grown too deep. The second, far too close for comfort, yet still in time for decisive, firm, and strategic action.

Look, See, Feel, and Act

I have embraced four essential verbs as critical to dealing with any enterprise, whether a multi-million-dollar university or a family. First, I implore those involved in leadership roles to Look – to focus with eyes open, and attentive to the world around us. I’ve seen many people open their eyes, however, without actually seeing. We are too often blinded by the distractions of life and our digital environs. I implore folks to See… to pay attention with senses alert to multiple dimensions. To see deeply, through layers of the visual… beyond and beneath the surficial. Looking and seeing alone do not suffice. We must see deeply enough to evoke Feeling. Feeling, emoting, and striking empathy for the organization and the cause sufficient to spur Action. Without action, looking, seeing, and feeling accomplish nothing. The first institution operated blindly for far too long. Fresh eyes, sharpened with deep experience, brought insight, offered remedies, and urged action in time to lift the second university to new heights.

University leadership must be fully attuned to the environment… the ecosystem within which the institution operates. Look, see, and feel to a level sufficient to assess whether action investments can be fruitful. Effectively operating any enterprise demands a business-like approach. Again, a university is a business, albeit not-for-profit. Operating requires revenue. Over some timeframe, revenue must exceed or equal expenditures. Although a noble cause, higher education still must abide by the rules that dictate business – you cannot spend money you don’t have. And like a forest, an education enterprise cannot grow to be The Mighty Oak on shallow, impoverished soil on an exposed upper slope. Site resources are too limiting. Nature, nor business, allows the impossible and even the best of sites will not produce The Mighty Oak with inadequate management practices.

Because I still operate with my industry orientation to action, I have observed with frustration that universities approach decisions with tendency to “ready, aim, aim, aim, aim….” The opportunity window too often closes without decisive action. I prefer “ready, fire, aim,” then, if necessary, tune the aim. Act before inaction assures failure. A dear fisheries biologist friend once said to me, “Steve, there is only one way to guarantee you will catch no fish. Don’t throw a line in the water.” The first example university avoided fishing. The second, with counsel, fresh looking and seeing, and urging, decided to throw a fish fry!

Dr. Jones article “Presidential Leadership and Crisis Management within Institutions at Risk” is a part of a series called: Things That Keep Higher Education Leaders Awake at Night. Edu Alliance thanks Steve as well as our Partners, Advisors and Friends for their valuable contributions and insights.

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.