4 Questions About Online Program Development Answered


Over the past five years, we’ve seen 1.5 million more students choose to study exclusively online. While higher education has been on a trajectory toward embracing more online learning, current events have pushed institutions to explore new possibilities with remote learning and online programs at an exceedingly faster pace than many originally conceived. As everything we once knew as normal shifts to our new reality, institutions see the growing opportunity to meet students’ needs and expectations through online programs.

If you’re considering beginning or growing online programs at your institution, review these important questions and answers around online program development to help set you—and your students—on a path to success.

Why should we think about growing our online programs?

While enrollment in higher education overall is down in recent years—a trend expected to continue well into the future—online enrollments have been up year-over-year. Before COVID-19 prompted even more shifts to online learning, the percentage of postsecondary students enrolled exclusively in online programs grew from 12.8% to 16.3% in the last five years, and those numbers continue to rise. Online enrollment rose at a faster pace last year than over the previous three years—marking the 14th year of online enrollment growth.

In other words, online enrollment is up year-over-year and at a growing pace.

Why? Today’s student is changing—and they’re turning to online programs to meet their needs.

What we know as the “traditional student,” those between the ages of 17-21 who attend four-year colleges and live on campus, make up only 15% of the undergraduate population in the U.S. today. Who are the remaining 85% of students? This overwhelming majority of students is considered non-traditional (or “post-traditional”). This is a diverse group of adult learners, full-time employees, low-income students, commuters, and working parents. These non-traditional students are more likely to enroll in fully online programs due to the flexibility it affords them as they juggle multiple personal and professional responsibilities.

How do we know which programs to put online?

Now that you see the value in online programs, you must determine which programs to put online. You can’t simply copy/paste your in-person programs to an online environment. Just like post-traditional students aren’t learning in the same ways as their traditional predecessors, the programs they’re studying will change too. Consider these three factors when choosing which programs to put online:

  1. Understand which programs are growing in demand both from a student perspective and workforce perspective. Where are jobs and workforce needs expected to grow over the next ten years?
  2. Determine what population you are trying to serve. Does your region have a need for increased bachelor’s degrees? Are there companies based in your state who need more engineers with master’s degrees? Is there a demand for shorter format certificates focused on professional development?
  3. Be realistic about which programs your institution has the brand permission to bring online and grow—if your institution is known for education and nursing, it may be hard to stand up an online cyber security program and convince prospective students they should come to your school.

Why would I outsource support for my online program development?

Developing and growing online programs and degrees takes specialized skills that may not be readily available at your institution. Working with a partner can help you stand up a new program or support and grow a current program more quickly than you could typically do on your own—especially if you don’t already have the resources hired in-house.

Partners who are deeply immersed in the higher education space can provide market insights and best practices that your institution may not have access to. When you find the right partner, you can continue doing what you do best while leaning on the best-in-category services of an outsourced partner to provide guidance and support where you need it.

What are my options for online program management partners?

Partnerships can be hugely advantageous to institutions, but you need to find the partner that’s right for you and your unique needs. Fortunately, institutions have options when it comes to finding the right partner.

Revenue-share model

Traditional Online Program Managers (OPMs) utilize what’s called a revenue-share model where the OPM makes the initial investment to stand up an online program as well as ongoing investment into marketing and enrollment for the program. They will then take a percentage (typically between 40-60%) of all incoming tuition dollars from that online program. Because the OPM has so much invested on their side, they tend to require a lot of control over which programs they are willing to work on along with the course content and delivery. They provide little transparency into the media placement they are making on behalf of the school. Rev-share models are relatively comprehensive in the services they provide, but it is difficult to opt-out of any services that you may be able to offer in-house. Contracts tend to be very long (up to eight or nine years), leaving little room for flexibility if anything changes as far as institutional capabilities.

Fee-for-service model

An alternative option is a fee-for-service model, an approach that requires more up-front investment but allows for more flexibility, transparency and ownership over your online program strategy and approach.

A fee-for-service approach provides the foundation for greater long-term growth and ROI.

This unbundled approach to supporting online programs allows you to provide the services in your area of expertise and outsource those where you need an outside skillset and scale—instead of requiring you to sign up for services you don’t need. Plus, with shorter contracts, an unbundled, fee-for-service approach provides more flexibility as your in-house services for online programs change and grow, allowing you to have an online program experience that is right for you rather than be managed by an OPM. Best of all, when you do grow your online programs, you keep 100% of the revenue.

What’s next

If you’re ready to take control of your online program development, learn more about Blackboard’s Online Program Experience (OPX) solutions, offering a flexible and transparent alternative to the traditional OPM. We’re helping institutions optimize their online efforts and achieve maximum ROI while meeting the demands of today’s students.