Ask these 3 questions to evaluate graduate and online growth partners

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Ask these 3 questions to evaluate graduate and online growth partners

Chances are, you’ve seen the headlines. From growing calls for transparency to mounting scrutiny of revenue-share agreements and recruitment practices, news about the challenges facing Online Program Management (OPM) providers has been prevalent in higher ed conversations.

Like many, I’m not surprised. In my current role, I help colleges and universities recruit and enroll students in graduate, online, and degree completion programs as part of EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment team. But I spent the first seven years of my career launching and working at an OPM, where I saw the benefits and pitfalls of the OPM model up close.

As stories about the drawbacks of these partnerships unfold, university leaders tell me they are concerned about the viability of these relationships and unsure how to proceed. Here are the questions administrators should ask themselves when considering an external vendor—OPM or otherwise.

1. What are our margins for each student and program, and how much risk can we take?

181%

increase in cost per click for the search term "online colleges" in just three years
increase in cost per click for the search term “online colleges” in just three years

Since my time working for an OPM, cost per lead has skyrocketed and conversion rate from lead to student has plummeted. Just three years ago, the cost per click for the search term “online colleges” was $32.81. Cost per click for “online colleges” has since increased 181 percent to $92.27 thanks to the expansion of online programs and searches for online institutions. Rising competition and costs mean questions about the margin for each additional student and program must be at the forefront of leaders’ minds.

As costs to recruit students grow, we’ve seen OPMs—out of necessity—refuse partnerships with programs or institutions which do not guarantee a return on investment. That has quickly made the revenue-share model used by many OPMs difficult to sustain. And as Derek Newton wrote in Forbes, “[Universities] now realize that 100 percent of 50 students is better than 40 percent of 75 and they simply aren’t willing to mortgage a decade’s worth of tuition revenue for anything.”

Some OPMs have begun to unbundle their offerings to provide a menu of potential services, similar to the flexible à la carte approach we take with our Adult Learner Recruitment partners. This disaggregation is a positive step. But it doesn’t negate the misalignment of OPMs’ services and institutions’ need for next-generation marketing and recruitment strategy.

2. What are our internal capabilities, and where is vendor support most useful?

From the time I’ve spent with university leaders, it’s become clear many aspects of enrolling and serving adult learners are best housed within the school itself. For example, faculty are best equipped to answer prospective students’ questions about coursework and outcomes. University admissions staff most effectively guide students through the final steps of application and enrollment. Colleges and universities know how to design and deliver curriculum. And while I’ve seen the merits of OPMs firsthand (including the ability to launch online programs quickly), most schools have found ways to bring programs online without OPM help.

Where vendors can be helpful is in reaching the right prospective students and moving them through the decision process towards enrollment. That work is especially complex when it comes to recruiting and enrolling adult learners in today’s competitive market.

Reaching adult learners requires a new type of solution, one that complements rather than duplicates or undercuts universities’ existing capabilities. Finding the right approach requires looking out of industry.

At EAB, our data scientists leverage consumer analytics and machine learning—the same used by corporations like Procter & Gamble and Nike—to identify best-fit prospective students and market to them directly. Our partners are not competing with thousands of schools on Facebook or bidding on “online MBA” in Google search terms, hoping to cut through the noise.

This work feels like the next frontier, and we keep learning and refining our approach. But this work also requires a small army of support, including strategic partners, data analysts, designers, and writers. It requires time most university leaders don’t have and a customized approach OPMs cannot provide.

3. How does partnering with an external vendor factor into our long-term strategy and goals?

One of my favorite parts of working with universities is the 100-year view they take to both their history and their future. But with the approaching decline in first-time, full-time students and revenue goals looming, more university leaders tell me they have a difficult time focusing beyond the next one to two recruitment cycles.

Too often, that means longer-term strategic objectives are lost in the shuffle. Outsourcing the work of building a program and communicating with students means outsourcing strategic work and the work they are best suited to provide.

The key is to identify the expertise you can and should leverage internally. And for the work you can’t do in-house, the question is: Who is the right partner?

As I think back on the early OPMs I was a part of, it’s clear we’ve come a long way. Five years from now, the data-based strategies we use to support our Adult Learner Recruitment partners will be the norm for institutions looking for the next pocket of potential students. And they’ll have to be. Universities—and their partners—must think deeply about how to stay on the cutting edge. The only way to thrive in the next decade is to understand your brand identity, know your capabilities, and innovate rather than follow.