Higher Education Online Program Management: Outsourced or In-House?

If you’ve been outsourcing your online program management, you may be wondering whether it’s time to bring it back in-house. You’re not alone.

Colleges and universities across the country are grappling with the same question: Is it better to outsource online program management and recruitment (typically at the cost of 50% of student tuition or more), or bring the efforts in-house, which would require additional systems and staff?

Many colleges and universities have outsourced online programming and digital recruitment efforts to Online Program Management partners (OPMs) such as Pearson Embanet, 2U, Bisk, and Academic Partnerships, among others, in exchange for 50-70% of student tuition payments. The risk is minimal, as no upfront payment is required, and the OPMs take care of everything from technology to marketing and enrollment to instruction of the courses.

However, as familiarity and expertise with online programs and digital recruitment have grown among internal teams, a number of institutions have begun bringing their online program management back in-house – many of them with great success.

So what’s a college or university to do? Below you’ll find the pros and cons of outsourcing online program management, as well as tips for managing digital recruitment if you do decide to bring it in-house.

The Pros of Outsourcing Online Program Management

1. Low Risk

Outsourcing online program management is typically very low risk, at least in the traditional sense. Online Program Management partners front all of the major costs, from developing the programs to marketing them to enrolling students and teaching the courses.

Since colleges and universities are not required to front any of the costs, the risk of failure or financial loss is low. The opportunity cost, however, is typically very high, with OPMs claiming 50-70% of enrolled student tuition.

2. Low Upfront Cost

OPMs offer a low-cost solution in the sense that there is no monetary output required from the college or university upfront. However, when you consider the percentage of tuition that is typically paid to the partner (50-70%), the opportunity cost is particularly high.

3. Easy to Implement

Likely the most attractive benefit of using an OPM for online programs is the ease of implementation. Companies such as Pearson and Bisk offer everything from development of digital programming to recruitment to the actual enrollment of students and instruction of courses.

This completely hands-off approach allows colleges and universities to run online programs and digital recruitment efforts without the need for additional systems and staff.

The Cons of Outsourcing Online Program Management

1. High Opportunity Cost

As we already mentioned, the opportunity cost of using an Online Program Management partner is incredibly high. Fifty percent of each student’s tuition payment is a hefty sum— all of which could be pocketed by the university with an in-house effort.

2. Unpredictable and Non-Transparent Marketing Efforts

While the idea of letting someone else handle online program management may sound ideal, the loss of control over how recruitment is managed can be challenging.

OPMs allocate marketing dollars and lead nurturing resources at their discretion, typically allocating the most funds and efforts to the programs that are most profitable. For smaller colleges and universities this can mean fewer resources allocated to promoting their programs, and therefore decreasing tuition dollars coming in over time.

3. Loss of Control over Brand

Another challenge of outsourced online program management is ensuring that brand consistency and voice is maintained by the OPM partner. Because OPMs handle everything from marketing to enrollment, their staff are the ones calling students to recruit them, sending emails, designing ads, and creating the digital experience for potential students.

Oftentimes, the college or university’s brand messaging, voice, and style of recruiting can get left at the door, potentially damaging the reputation and value of the program offering. Additionally, the OPMs may be looking to “fill seats” rather than assessing whether the student is a true fit for the program.

4. Program Infrastructure is Not Owned

Additionally, online program infrastructure and leads generated by OPMs are owned by the OPM, and simply leased to the college or university in exchange for a percentage of tuition. Because the college or university does not own any of the infrastructure, if they desire to change, combine, or replicate the program, they are able to do so only at the discretion of the OPM. Additionally, OPM partner websites and landing pages are often competing with the college or university’s website for online traffic.

Managing Recruitment for Online Programs In-House

If you’ve decided to bring your online program management efforts in-house, one of the critical things to consider is how you’ll handle digital recruitment. As you prepare for the transition, consider these five steps in the digital recruitment process that you’ll need to plan for.

1. Lead Generation

The first step in any digital recruitment program is generating and identifying leads. Consider partnering with a digital marketing agency to help you target ads to the appropriate audiences, optimize your landing pages and conversion rates, and otherwise make the most of your lead generation spend.

When you first transition from an OPM, it’s important to “do the math” and understand exactly what you should be spending per enrolled student in order to meet or exceed your enrollment goals. At VONT, we start by calculating this number, and then work backwards to figure out what the marketing spend should be at each phase in order to meet or exceed enrollment targets.

2. Lead Nurturing

Once you’ve captured your targeted number of leads (potential students) the nurturing process begins. Colleges and universities that are bringing their digital recruitment in-house for the first time may already have these systems in place; for example, the undergraduate admissions team may be able to take on recruitment of online or special program leads as well.

However, some institutions prefer to keep recruitment for online, graduate, or other special programs within that particular department, in which case additional admissions and/or recruitment staff may be necessary.

3. Lead Nurturing Systems

In addition to staffing the recruitment effort, new software systems such as a CRM or other lead nurturing programs may be needed to keep track of leads and the recruitment outreach that has been done for each.

4. Evaluation and Admissions

Once students have applied to the program, they will need to be evaluated and either accepted or denied. Once again, the staff required to evaluate applications may already exist within another department (for example, undergraduate admissions), but if not, the team may need to be expanded to handle the volume of applications.

5. Yield Management

Once students have received their acceptance notices, the critical period of yield management (achieving the desired number of enrollments) begins.

Similar to the lead nurturing phase, this is a time when personal outreach, as well as digital marketing tactics such as social media advertising, email and remarketing can be extremely beneficial. Ideally your lead nurturing team can assist in this phase, in addition to a digital marketing partner.

The Takeaway

Transitioning from outsourced to in-house digital recruitment is a complicated process that requires careful consideration and evaluation, but with the right knowledge and trusted partners the results can be very successful.

For more information on how to market higher education online programs, we suggest you check out our web page on higher education digital marketing tactics and strategies. It will give you a high level overview of what it takes to be successful with digital marketing today.

About VONT Performance Digital Marketing

At VONT we believe that change is the only constant in the digital world – and that excites us. Over the years, digital marketing has played an ever-growing role in higher education recruitment. From lead generation for inquiries, campus visits, and applications to increasing brand awareness and student yield – digital marketing and ongoing optimizations can have a significant impact on the objectives that confront today’s higher ed marketer.

We believe in this idea of continual fine-tuning so much that we named our company VONT, which means to achieve exponential improvement in incremental steps. It is our core belief, and the reason why we are not simply a web design company or simply a digital advertising agency, but rather a long-term, single source partner providing a comprehensive array of web development and digital marketing capabilities for higher education clients.

In short, we’re here so that our clients achieve success in the ever-changing digital world. If you’d like to learn more about VONT and the work we’ve done with our higher education clients, visit our Work page. Or, if you have a question, contact us. We’ll get right back to you!

Hannah Richards
Written By

Hannah Richards

Director of Brand Engagement