How to identify strategic opportunities for online growth

Over the past decade, many leaders in higher ed have shared the same mantra as it relates to growing online: If you build it, they will come. But are “they” showing up? Or are “they” the right people you want knocking at your door?

There’s no doubt that online enrollment keeps rising, but at the same time, institutions are finding it harder than ever to grow successful online programs and often face risks when doing so — financially, academically, and with respect to reputation . To control risks and improve performance, institutions must become far more strategic about how they build, deliver, and scale online programs.

Four keys to building a successful strategy

Going online isn’t a tactical approach. You need a strategy that will help you understand and react to the demands and shifts in the market. It starts with gathering market data, choosing the right program, and lining up appropriate resources.

Understand your market

Taking the path of least resistance by going online with the most convenient program option or providing a generic online degree is no longer the answer; you need to identify key differentiators, true demand in the market, aligned with strong program outcomes.

  • Identify or reevaluate your core target audience. Your online programs can’t serve everybody.
  • Understand and pay attention to competitors (including your own institution’s on-campus courses and programs). Many schools forget to look beyond their own region when analyzing online program competition. For a good example, perform a Google search for “online nursing degree” to see who’s advertising in your own backyard (as well as nationally).
  • Is there a market segment that is not currently being served or is not being served well?A niche strategy allows you to focus your efforts. For example, perhaps you can build a highly successful program around your faculty’s expertise in business analytics, a specific industry, or new partnerships with key regional employers. A strategy like this can lower the cost of student acquisition and allow a program to be sustainable.

Identify a need

Rethink segments around students’ unmet needs — the needs you’d be uniquely positioned to meet, once you innovate properly around your core assets.

  • Assess your students’/prospective students’ overall journey to discover potential opportunities. Opportunities can sometimes exist when it comes to simplifying the application process, admissions review timelines, or communication with prospects.
  • Understand what motivates them to take online courses. Is it saving time? Money? A convenient location?  Focus on programs that students “have to have” and that are tightly aligned with the career outcomes (license, credentials, certification, professional requirements, etc)
  • Take the time to listen. What do your students or prospects think of your institution? Where are there program opportunities where your school is well known, highly-ranked, or well-suited for a creative opportunity, like taking a program online?

Invest in research

Professional market research should objectively assess student demand and shifting labor markets, as well as your brand strength, reputation, culture, and ability to deliver.

  • What qualitative and quantitative data will you need to make the right decisions and do you have internal resources to get it, or do you need outside expertise?
        • Consider this: “on average, schools partnering with traditional end-to-end OPMs [Online Program Managers] have outperformed their peers in increasing enrollment.” Eduventures, Expanding the OPM Definition, 2017)
  • Often, the key to unlocking new opportunities for profit doesn’t require changing what you offer. It requires changing what you charge for it. Understand the ramifications of improperly pricing a program and attracting the wrong student demographic.
  • Realize the importance of your program name. This can attract radically different students.

Create a culture to succeed

Dig deep to understand if your university has established a culture that allows for an entrepreneurial and growth-minded atmosphere.

  • Are university tax policies and faculty incentive structures in place to make sure critical team members have what they need to take a program online, once one has been identified? All university stakeholders want to feel supported and also feel part of the conversation — be ready to ensure the right kind of support so your top talent has what they need to succeed in the venture of launching an online program. No one wants to be part of a project that feels like twice the work with no incentive or support in sight.
  • Do current university approval processes allow you to be nimble with your strategy?  Program, department, college, university, and accrediting body approval processes can take anywhere from months to years to navigate. This kind of delay allows any kind of competitive advantage to disappear. At public institutions, procurement processes may not always be accustomed to evaluating solutions like enrollment management or marketing services. Know and understand how your university is “positioned to move” in order to succeed.
  • Is there a centralized strategy to prevent conflicts between programs and colleges? Some universities will see situations where programs within the same college are actually competing against each other. Other schools can have multiple marketing vendors or enrollment partners all working within the same university — creating costly competition and conflicts for the university. Create alignment and alliances within campus leadership to prevent this costly mistake.

If you’re struggling with scaling your institution or finding new areas of profitable growth online, you’re not alone. Learn what it takes to compete in today’s competitive market. Get our free white paper to help you answer one pivotal question — should you build or buy?


Today’s increasingly competitive landscape requires a strategic approach to successfully reaching more of the right students where they are. Partnering with Pearson can help you accelerate strategic change while reducing the risks associated with growing your online presence.

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About the author

Brian DeKemper

Brian is a member of Pearson Online Learning Services Business Development team. He works to identify growth markets for universities to launch new online programs. He is in year 13 of his career in higher education services and technology: LMS technology, training and consulting, project management, enrollment management services, account management, product management, and now online program management. Connect of LinkedIn.

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