The Future of Online Program Management Services:

with Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Grant Aldrich | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 026

Table of Contents

The Future of Online Program Management

This program focused on the future of online program management (OPM). When online education began to emerge, many higher education institutions didn’t have the wherewithal and talent to ramp up online programs so many companies started offering OPM services in program conception and creation. Over time, OPMs have expanded to include student recruitment, student retention, and support. These additional services provided by an external company can actually be beneficial to colleges and universities because most higher education institutions don’t do these things very well.

However, the role of OPMs in higher education continues to spark controversy. For instance, the most recent negotiated rulemaking process at the federal level saw a push by OPMs and some for-profits to allow outside entities to develop and provide 100% of the curriculum, thus bypassing university faculty. However, that proposal did not pass.

A shifting model of Online Program Management

Today, higher education institutions see OPMs as a necessary evil because the institutions don’t have the in-house knowledge to offer these services. There is a growing sentiment that the price to hire an Online Program Management is too high since these companies take a significant percentage of the tuition as part of their services. The contracts also are very lengthy and institutions face an increasingly competitive recruitment environment to find students to enroll in these programs. The combination of those issues are causing a sea-change in the market in which more services are becoming available and those services are becoming commoditized.

However, there currently is a gap in the market for an OPM that operates with a focus on the student’s best interest. While OPMs need to continue to serve universities and colleges ultimately it should be up to the students to decide the best academic fit.

New opportunities OPM

Aldrich believes that a very dramatic shift will happen soon in how the OPM market is structured. This shift would be from a university-centric model to a student-centric model, which could require OPM providers to take a lower share of tuition rates. This model could include many facets, such as:

  • Offering free classes to students, thus eliminating the barrier of tuition.
  • Meeting the needs of non-traditional students who have jobs and families that they must juggle.
  • Creating an environment of support to enhance retention and other student needs.
  • Having a better understanding of students’ capacity, due to quality assessments built into the OPM.
  • Developing a better recruitment pipeline for universities and colleges.

When marketing to meet enrollment numbers, many higher education institutions will bring in students who aren’t ready for college or are not a great fit for that institution. Because of the incentive structure in which an agency is trying to fill as many seats as possible, it’s not in the institution’s best interest to look at student fit.

That’s a paradigm that needs to shift with online adult students. As higher education enrollment dramatically evolves from primarily service the traditional student who is enrolling directly after graduating high school to the adult learner, institutions will need to rethink their tactics, recruiting pipeline, and advertising messages.

Furthermore many of the working adults in this current higher education demographic are choosing higher education alternatives in greater numbers. Their decision is being based on factors outside of cost so institutions need to start reflecting on what’s behind these choices.

A student-centric approach to Online Program Management

The student-centric approach gives institutions a new paradigm to solve this issue. For example, Aldrich’s company,, is designed as a bridge to higher education to help students successfully begin their degree program, thus encouraging student preparation, confidence, motivation, and persistence. This approach also could help institutions recruit students at a lower cost.

To achieve this approach, Aldrich and his team have created a platform that offering a credit-bearing immersion program. A student can take foundational college-level courses and the company has worked out articulation agreements with a variety of institutions to earn credit for courses. is completely free for the student.

Aldrich said the first part of the equation to create this approach is looking at the needs of working adults; they are cost-sensitive and busy with children and jobs. Enrolling in college and taking classes often can be a very scary and time-consuming endeavor; often these adults don’t know if they have the mental, emotional, and physical capacity to do so.

Gaining traction

This novel approach, which is the next generation of OPM, tears down the barriers and helps students see if higher education is right for them. Students can evaluate their time-management skills to see if they have the acumen they have to be successful in a self-paced format. This approach also prepares them to enroll in an institution.

This approach has been working very well. In the first 30 days, over 1,000 students pre-enrolled without the company doing any marketing. Since then, there has been immense interest as the company gets traction in publications in Forbes and other publications. This indicates the company is figuring out how to remove the barriers for adults.

Institutions including large state universities, private universities, and private non-profit institutions also are working with Aldrich’s company. In addition, the company is seeing good outcomes for students getting the support they need and helping them find good placements.

This approach also helps higher education institutions solve many of the problems they face.  For example, Aldrich’s company is a bundled service provider that provides student recruitment, retention, and support for students that use that platform. So all the barriers for institutions to work with Aldrich’s company have been removed.

By creating a platform built specifically to serve the student, the OPM also offers surprising benefits for the university. For instance, if the OPM provides really good coaching, students can determine the best pathway related to the program that they want to pursue. Additionally, a strong assessment system helps the OPM better understand the student’s academic capacity. This enables the OPM to help both the student and the higher education to determine whether they would be a good “fit” as the student continues his/her academic journey. Thus, a useful and well-targeted recruitment pipeline opens up between the OPM and the institution.

In addition, there’s no lengthy contract, no exclusivity, and the economics are far better than a traditional OPM provider.

Changing the market

Aldrich also foresees another shift in which institutions won’t work with one OPM company but instead develop relationships with many companies like his. That’s because there will be better economics by not avoiding exclusivity.

The combination of offering a degree at no cost to the student along with student advisement is the way forward, Aldrich believes. Community colleges are limited resource-wise in being able to provide this type of support to students. Traditional institutions also don’t offer the flexibility schedule-wise as well the support needed for non-traditional students who need to work or care for family.

This approach also should benefit faculty, who don’t want to teach these introductory general education courses. These faculty would rather work with more advanced students who have a passion for the subject matter. The work that Aldrich’s company and others do allows these courses to be offered at a far lower cost.

Initially, there has been some concern about whether institutions would push back. However, this student-centric approach is making the pie larger because this program is available. This is a much greater value for institutions.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Aldrich offered three recommendation for higher education leaders who are considering an OPM model:

  • Take an introspective and analytical approach to see if the institution should tackle this type of program internally or whether external help is needed.
  • If contracting with a company, make sure that the institution can work with OPM providers who are coming from a student-centered approach.
  • Embrace the student-centered programs that focus on non-traditional students.

Bullet Points

  • Many higher education institutions didn’t have the internal resources to be able to offer online education. They have increasingly turned companies that offer OPM services in program conception and creation. Over time, OPMs have expanded to include student recruitment, student retention, and support.
  • A very dramatic shift will happen soon in how the OPM market is structured. This shift would be from a university-centric model to a student-centric model. This could include free tuition, strong student services, and a recruitment pathway to universities.
  • This next generation of OPMs also can be enticing to the growing number of adult learners, who need flexibility, low costs, and additional academic support.
  • A student-centric OPM model can help students successfully begin their degree program by helping them develop time-management and study skills, confidence, motivation, and persistence.
  • In this new paradigm, higher education institutions won’t work with only one OPM company but instead develop relationships with many companies.
  • This approach also should benefit faculty, who don’t want to teach introductory general education courses and would rather focus on upper-level students who are focused on the subject area.

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