In my work as an online higher education consultant, I divide my time between colleges/universities and the companies that serve them in the online space, particularly online program management firms (OPMs). As a former university president and a former OPM CEO, I have the opportunity to observe universities and OPMs negotiate, create, and manage complex partnership agreements--and I'm often invited to the table because I bring a unique practical perspective of both sides of the relationship.
Over the past five years, I've interviewed over 100 presidents of medium to smaller private, not-for-profit institutions (largely members of the Council of Independent Colleges) about their strategic online plans and what they want and/or need from an OPM. As online learning moves from the periphery to the strategic agendas of private, not-for-profit colleges, presidential perspectives on the role of online learning provide an essential resource to an OPM’s development of products, services, features and marketing themes to assure consonance between the OPM’s strategic direction and its target market. Here are a few of the common themes:
Serve as a source of research for colleges. Presidents wrestle with conflicting constituencies, including regulatory bodies. Objective research on optimum philosophies and approaches (as well as national trends and models for improvement) will give presidents needed ammunition and make institutional change easier.
Don’t treat colleges like a business, nor try to appeal to business-driven results. Not-for-profits bring different values to the table and feel vindicated by recent public floggings of the for-profit sector. Appeal to the larger purposes of higher education—changing lives, expanding the reach of the college’s mission and educational approach.
Colleges maintain a healthy skepticism of external business partners. They all have horror stories of high-priced, overblown promises that cost the president stature and the college momentum and resources. Entrepreneurial colleges feel confident of their ability to run online in-house, while colleges behind the curve are intimidated about which model (and partner) would be best. Trust built through relationships and results must remain paramount.
Most presidents are content with their current online model, but quickly reveal fear of falling behind or losing market share. Few presidents have grandiose dreams about online enrollment, but they are concerned that the world is passing them by.
Online development is usually driven by a single innovator or a small team. Presidents like the inexpensive and home-grown nature of the arrangement, but understand that these key players could leave and move the college back to square one. Many also admit to current difficulties in scaling for success.
Presidents admit that too much time was spent on curricular design and platform development, while too little time and expertise has developed in the branding, marketing and student recruitment side of the online venture. The ability to deliver adequate numbers of students at a reasonable price would convince some presidents to change models and/or platforms.
Declining and/or flat enrollments on campus and in adult programs increase the sense of urgency for online development. Most presidents admit to little or no knowledge of online programming, thinking that it would be an extension of their on ground adult and off-site programs. Online is becoming a separate item on the strategic agenda of many presidents.
Concern persists that online program expansion will cannibalize the adult and off-site programs. Presidents worry that their lack of online marketing expertise will result in fishing in the same prospect pool for both online and on-ground adult students, leading to a net loss of their current markets.
Faculty governance remains the #1 internal obstacle related to all innovation, including online development and expansion. No other issue is more diverse from campus to campus, ranging from faculty driving all issues to faculty being avoided. In all cases, however, the role and function of faculty was a foundational concern.
Presidents must preserve the core identity and mission of the institution. Their jobs hang in the balance. Ironically, many of the presidents admitted that they could survive financial downturns, but not accusations of changing the nature of the college. The for-profits (or not-for-profits that became for-profits) are not attractive models. Partners must understand how colleges measure success over the long haul.
Accreditation and regulatory constraints are making strategic change almost impossible. Many presidents have recent horror stories of timelines for approvals of new programs and locations—most of the stories involved a year or more of waiting for decisions.
Presidents aren’t looking for big markets or rapid growth. Both scenarios raise accreditation and regulatory red flags, and private colleges prefer running under the radar. Conversely, incremental long-term expansion was desirable for most presidents—preferring modest increases that would make a substantial impact in the institution over time.
The student environment must be the focus of all aspects of online delivery. Private college presidents take great pride in the hands-on, personal approach of their programs, including off-site and adult services that exceed student expectations. Retention is not viewed as a business metric, but as a measure of their success in supporting their students.
At JenEd Consulting, we're facilitating the conversation between colleges and OPMs to clarify expectations, while also increasing an understanding and appreciation for the folks on the opposite side of the negotiating table.
Dr. John E. Neal, President