Noodle Partners pioneered the fee-for-service approach, which Bradshaw said helps keep universities and OPMs on the same page by making costs transparent. “I’m incentivized to do whatever the school wants me to do, because it’s their money,” Bradshaw explained. A number of well-known institutions have embraced Noodle’s approach, including Boston College, Tulane University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia.
But while the fee-for-service model certainly makes sense for universities, it does not seem to result in less aggressive marketing to students. A Noodle-powered program I looked into used a phone-and-email-heavy approach similar to that of its 2U counterparts (including 13 phone calls from my recruitment counselor).
Massive open online course, or MOOC, providers such as Coursera (for-profit) and edX (nonprofit) offer another promising alternative. Shifting from their initial focus on stand-alone free or low-cost online courses, many of these organizations have started partnering with universities to help them bring full degree programs online.
Like OPMs, MOOCs charge universities to develop, market, and run online degree programs. But unlike OPMs, they can offer prospective students the option to take a course before enrolling. According to Kim Caldbeck, Coursera’s chief marketing officer, the “try before you buy” tactic is a powerful recruitment vehicle—one that 60 percent of students in Coursera’s degree programs take advantage of.
While Coursera also relies on traditional email marketing and, in some cases, phone calls to prospective students, Caldbeck told me that access to detailed data on millions of learners allows her company to pursue a more thoughtful approach to recruitment. “For each learner on Coursera, we’re really able to understand their potential interest in a particular degree program, which allows us to be very targeted in how we reach out,” she said.
The final trait shared by nearly all online degrees developed in partnership with MOOC providers is a significantly lower cost, which can act as a major draw and therefore decrease the need for enrollment counselors and other similar marketing strategies. Perhaps the most well-known such degree, Georgia Tech’s master of science in computer science program, was created with Udacity and AT&T, and charged a tuition of just $6,630 when it launched several years ago. On Georgia Tech’s website, I couldn’t find the option to request a phone call at all.
Finally, some schools are opting out of OPM partnerships altogether, instead choosing to develop online programs themselves. The University of Pennsylvania’s first fully online master’s degree, in health-care innovation, was created in-house. A small internal team manages all aspects of the program, including experimenting with outreach strategies ranging from information sessions to digital marketing. “We want to manage the content and the interactions ... so that [the program] is up to the Penn standards,” Heather Rosenbloom, the senior marketing manager at Penn’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, told me.