University Leaders Weigh in on Value of Online Program Managers

Many students are looking for flexible online higher education opportunities, and to meet this need with quality online offerings, colleges and universities are turning to online program managers (OPMs) to help them develop, improve, run and recruit students for their online education programs.

Higher education institutions, especially regional public universities, are opting to work with OPMs to establish and grow their online programs, bringing capabilities that enhance programs and help recruit students. OPMs represent a growing segment of service providers that help schools take new academic programs online. An increasing number of schools are working with these providers. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) data, as of 2021, at least 550 colleges worked with an OPM to support at least 2,900 education programs, and about 90 percent of colleges with OPM arrangements were public or nonprofit colleges.

Under Section 487 (a)(20) of the Higher Education Act, higher education institutions are prohibited from compensating employees or third party entities for successfully enrolling students. This ban on incentive compensation is part of the Department of Education’s Program Integrity Rules, issued in 2010, which were designed to promote higher education program integrity and protect students. The incentive compensation includes commissions, bonus payments and merit salary adjustments, as well as payments made to recruiters based on student academic performance. Schools cannot provide incentive compensation for third parties for successfully recruiting and enrolling students.

The GAO found that OPMs commonly recruit students for schools, so these arrangements are subject to the incentive compensation ban. The law has an exception, however. In 2011, the DOE issued guidance related to the ban that created an exception for third parties that provide a bundled set of services, which can include recruitment. In the past decade, the number of providers in this space has increased, and the DOE has started to revisit the guidelines.

In February, the Department of Education launched a review of the prohibition on incentive compensation for college recruiters, as well as issuing guidance to boost transparency over college and university contractors. On March 9, the Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education hosted a public hearing in the form of a Virtual Listening Session on Bundled Services. Access the full text of the session here

OPMs can bundle a wide variety of services. For instance, Academic Partnerships is an OPM that offers technologies and tools to help universities grow their capacity to offer non-traditional online learners access to top-quality, affordable and workforce relevant degree programs. It helps institutions stand up the support and infrastructure needed to help faculty improve online course design, and offers integrated marketing services. Its AP HigherEdge student recruitment and retention model supports students throughout their higher education journey from initial qualification of students and application and enrollment assistance. Academic Partnerships’ enrollment service specialists function as an extension of the school, and retention services specialists support students throughout their degree program. 

OPMs Offer Value

OPM offerings can bring value to schools, helping create quality online programs and boosting persistence and retention. Colleges and universities that work with OPMs were outspoken about the value these providers can bring to the table. In the Department of Education Listening Session on bundled services guidance, a variety of university leaders, program graduates and others spoke out about how they’ve found the fee-for-persistence model in building and sustaining low-tuition, high-quality online degree programs.  

Kevin Kucera, Vice President and Chief Enrollment Officer at Eastern Michigan University expressed that the existing rules have benefitted his school. “The 2011 bundled services guidance allowed EMU to afford and procure the outside resources, expertise, and support we needed. I am pleased to report that today Eastern Michigan University serves hundreds of nurses in our online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Not only do students enjoy the flexibility that the program provides, but they are able to earn their degree on a very affordable basis,” Kucera said.

At La Salle University, partnering with its OPM provides the necessary resources to launch online programs that the university doesn’t possess. It also assumes most of the upfront risk for the launch of new programs.   

The online MBA program at Southern Oregon University, which partners with Academic Partnerships, has seen high retention rates and has been able to hold down tuition costs due to its OPM arrangement. The program appeals to working adults, and 90 percent of students are part-time.

“The SOU MBA program has full control and responsibility for our curriculum, including the development, design, and offering various concentrations in the program,” said Dr. René Ordoñez, Professor of Business, Graduate Programs in Business Coordinator. “In terms of affordability, we have one of the lowest in the Pacific Northwest region.” The tuition cost to complete the degree is $19,350.”