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.



  1. Excellent article. Peirce College was one of the early adopters of online education (since 2000). Some key observations reflected in this article that I would echo would be: #1 – know your mission – as most schools have online there has to be a reason students will choose your institution. #2 – online orientation, Students will quickly adapt to the online style but cannot afford to waste time learning the platform particularly as many programs are offered in an accelerated format. #10 -Student Services are a key component to a good retention. Tutoring access is critical through platforms such as SMART THINKING.

    The only thing I would add for those considering online would be to realize that for many institutions most of their online students will come from a local market – within 40 miles of the school. This should be reflected in the marketing of the online program.

    Finally, Peirce College has taken online to the next step through our program PEIRCE FIT. Our students, primarily working adults, have adult situations such as sick children, community events. unexpected late nights at work. Our students now have the option of choosing to go to class either online or on campus on a week to week basis; no more missing class! This is particularly important in an accelerated program.


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