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Evaluating Your Options for Online & Hybrid Academic Program Development

Megan McCorkle
October 17, 2023
11 mins


  • Online learning & hybrid academic program options are crucial for enrollment success.
  • Options for online program development include in-house development, OPMs, course sharing, and program sharing.
  • Each option has its pros and cons, with considerations for cost, effort, and enrollment impact.
  • Program sharing offers a middle ground between in-house development and OPMs, with bundled services for academic, enrollment, and partner support.
  • Choose the option that aligns with your institution's size, priorities, and financial health.

Having options for online learning and hybrid academic programs is critical in today’s competitive enrollment environment. Students want the flexibility of online courses. According to a recent survey by McKinsey and Company, 65% of college students want some aspects of their learning to be virtual. Yet according to the annual Changing Landscape of Higher Education report, only 22% of chief online officers surveyed said their full-time faculty have experience building online courses. This is creating a disconnect between student expectations and what institutions can provide. 

What are your options as an institution considering the addition of online offerings? 

Building online courses and programs on your own is the most obvious answer, but over the last decade, the edtech industry has exploded with options to support and/or replace the traditional path of program creation. The nuances between the various options can be confusing, especially when the marketing messages all shout the same benefits. Attract new students! Stay ahead of the curve! Create new revenue streams! 

The options for outsourcing some or all of your online offerings fall into three broad categories: online program management (OPMs), course sharing, and program sharing. Below is a brief overview of the options, as well as the pros and cons of each path. 

What to Know About In-house Online Program Development

In-house Online Program Development

To build online courses and/or online programs in-house, you’ll need to:

  • Hire faculty, instructional designers, and administrators to begin the program development process.
  • Acquire the technology to stream, record and host the online content, including a learning management system (LMS)
  • Spend on marketing the programs to attract new students. 

For colleges already experiencing initiative overload and committee fatigue, the lift of creating new online programs is significant without a guarantee of success. Online only programs inherently widen the geographic footprint from which you can recruit prospective students and create new opportunities for enrollment growth, however it also widens the pool of competition. The cost is also significant. All in, starting a new academic program in-house can cost upwards of $500k according to research by Burning Glass Industries. This includes the cost of hiring and retaining faculty, particularly in high demand fields, which can be more costly when competing for talent with industry. The success rate of starting new programs is alarmingly low, which makes going the in-house route financially risky. According to Lightcast data, only 30% of new programs succeed in enrolling 10 new students within the first year and 30% of new programs stop producing graduates all together within 5 years. 

Building new programs in-house also has its benefits. Your institution will have complete control over course content. The academic quality and rigor will be consistent with your other offerings. Of particular interest to faith based institutions, this means you can ensure syllabi align with your mission. Faculty will have authority over any changes made to the program long-term. On the flip side, your institution will also be accountable for updating courses regularly to stay up-to-date with changes in the field to meet student and industry expectations. This includes maintaining staffing needs for all courses, even as enrollments expand and contract. 

Pros: Content ownership, Enrollment growth opportunity

Cons: Significant effort, High cost, Ongoing maintenance + staffing, High risk

What to Know About OPMs

Online Program Management

What is an Online Program Manager (OPM)?

Online program managers, also known as OPMs, enable institutions to completely outsource online degree programs including content development, course sequencing, support services, and student recruitment. It is often a turnkey solution including bundled services, however more OPMs are allowing institutions to unbundle and select "a la carte" services. For colleges overburdened with existing priorities, utilizing an OPM can be effective in quickly entering the online education market with virtually no effort. For example, colleges using an OPM often (though not always) white label the courses and degree programs created by their partner.

Removing the need for internal effort comes at a high cost. Most OPMs operate on a revenue share model with limited upfront costs. In theory this aligns the interests of colleges and OPMs, which center around growing enrollment and lowers the risk, and financial burden, of failure. But revenue share models can become expensive, with some OPMs taking 60% or more of the revenue generated from every new student they enroll. This leaves less margin for colleges to invest in other support services and capital projects that benefit the campus community. Given that most of the program and services are outsourced, there is limited flexibility to make changes. The contract length is also significantly longer than other tech-enabled solutions with contract periods of 5 to 10 years. 

This prompted the Department of Education to draft a “Dear Colleague Letter” calling for new reporting guidelines for colleges leveraging revenue sharing models. The guidelines continue to evolve. This regulatory headache may make it more challenging for colleges to leverage OPMs and require more investment from Institutional Research teams in particular. 

Given these characteristics, OPMs often focus on larger institutions that have a strong brand name, but don't have the resources to staff and manage in-house online program development. Investing all of the upfront money, OPMs are typically only interested in partnering with large institutions that have a wider audience to market to. Further, they tend to focus predominantly on graduate programs and adult learners. 

Pros: Low effort, Limited risk, Enrollment growth opportunity

Cons: High cost, Inflexibility, Regulatory investigation

Audience: Ideal for large, brand name colleges

What to Know About Course Sharing

Course Sharing

What is course sharing?

Course sharing is when two or more institutions collaborate to make a course available to students through their home institution for credit. This may or may not entail collaboration on course content and delivery, as well as associated administrative resources. The concept of course sharing is not new in higher education. For decades, colleges have been taking advantage of course sharing partnerships to reduce expenses and offer students a wider breadth of learning opportunities. 

More recently, the prevalence of online course sharing is on the rise. As higher education becomes decreasingly bound to the physical classroom, institutions have been able to expand course sharing from small agreements with geographically close partners to course sharing with institutions across the country. Course sharing can be powerful in opening access to courses that an institution does not have faculty to teach in a specialized area, for last-minute staffing challenges, and in keeping students on track to graduate after falling behind for sequential courses. 

Like OPMs, course sharing comes with limited upfront costs and therefore lower financial risk. Costs are typically variable with usage, but overall the cost is significantly lower than the OPM model. That’s because traditional course sharing does not come with any of the bundled services that OPMs provide, such as enrollment marketing, student registration systems, or support services. Another key difference is that when leveraging a course sharing marketplace, the quality of courses can be highly variable based on the teaching institution, as can course availability. The variety and breadth of the marketplace is exactly what makes the system so effective for just-in-time, individual course needs. However, this also means that colleges and universities focused on consistent academic quality and rigor across a cluster of courses may not be an ideal fit for large course sharing marketplaces. 

Leveraging course sharing as a short term fix can create its own challenges. How do you manage student support with many LMS systems and varying calendars? Or assessment with inconsistent syllabi or learning outcomes frameworks? Administratively it can be difficult for institutions, and students, to map one-off courses towards degree progress and maintain course sharing agreements with a multitude of institutions. Even if you partner with one institution for a cluster of courses, is that partner reliable and experienced in providing the administrative and student support needed to foster success? Course sharing, unlike comprehensive program development done in-house or outsourced with an OPM, is unlikely to move the needle for enrollment growth, but can be used as a lever for retention. 

Pros: Low cost, Low risk, On-demand availability

Cons: Uncertain quality, Limited enrollment impact, Administratively complex

Audience: Ideal for colleges with short-term staffing challenges

What to Know About Program Sharing

Program Sharing

What is program sharing?

Program sharing pairs a limited number of online courses shared between multiple institutions with bundled services to create hybrid degree programs for maximal enrollment and revenue impact. Program sharing, sometimes referred to as premium course sharing, is the latest innovation in the online program space. It is based on the concept that high-quality, marketable degrees and courses need to generate great outcomes for students and more enrollment and retention for a college.

With course sharing, swapping individual courses with a wide range of institutions has value, but can fall short of achieving these more ambitious goals given the tradeoffs referenced in the section above. The key difference with program sharing is adding several layers of managed services on top of the exchange of courses to improve the quality, transparency and consistency of traditional course sharing. 

You can think of it as an intermediate option between an OPM and course sharing. Program sharing is significantly lower in cost than OPMs, but is more expensive, and more effective, than traditional course sharing. That’s because although it includes some bundled services, the foundational courses students take and the overall student experience are still predominantly on-campus. The students and the programs remain yours, while a select few courses are outsourced. This makes program sharing an ideal option for small, cost-conscious institutions. 

The potential drawback of close collaboration is the need for institutional buy-in. Rather than an OPM where the classes are often managed separately, program sharing requires thoughtful integration of courses, services, and enrollment. To that end, campus buy-in from administrators, faculty, and ultimately students is critically important to the success of shared programs. Some of the bundled services included with program sharing help with that and enhance the impact of course sharing, including academic support, enrollment support and partner support.

Academic Support

Having a shared operations team and instructional designers creates advantages for both students and institutions.

  1. The academic operations team can serve as the technology and administrative backbone for institutions collaborating through a program sharing consortium. By standardizing oversight of the Learning Management System, technical support, academic calendars and more, students get a consistent experience and instructors who are experts in online instruction who focus on student engagement.
  2. The instructional design team can create a shared set of pedagogical standards that every course adheres to. This includes both course development and delivery standards that improve the quality of each course and create transparent expectations for institutions.
  3. The instructional design team can also facilitate annual curriculum committees alongside institutions where experts from academia and industry ensure curriculum is iterated based on student feedback and changes in the field.

Enrollment Support

Programs can’t be successful if students don’t know about them. Another bundled service included with program sharing is a team of content creators and enrollment experts as shared resources who help partner colleges confidently explain the unique value of their courses and programs powered in part by program sharing.

  1. Creating marketing content to promote specific programs or a unique course sharing partnership can be challenging for small teams. By creating shared content templates, colleges can spend time focusing on their unique brand rather than redundant program information.
  2. Every college is unique, but certain enrollment strategies are best practices every college should employ. Investing in a team of enrollment experts who can assess and share consortial best practices can enhance the return-on-investment for all institutions.

Partner Support

Ensuring each program sharing participant has a dedicated partnership liaison drives greater transparency and a more seamlessly integrated solution.

  1. Partnership liaisons can help colleges carefully vet and build programs that are ideal complements to their existing course catalog and build upon their unique mission and identity.
  2. Partnership liaisons can share regular attendance reports, student success reports and learning outcomes reports to enhance oversight and assessment of programs.

By layering core, standardized services on top of the course sharing technology platform, program sharing offers an impactful model for enrollment, student experience, and administrative and faculty oversight.

Pros: Low cost, Low risk, Academic quality guarantee, Enrollment growth opportunity

Cons: Campus buy-in needed

Audience: Ideal for small colleges


Online education is here to stay and can be a critical component to your institution’s future growth. There are several options to launching or expanding your institution’s online offerings & hybrid academic programs with pros and cons for each. The biggest thing to keep in mind when comparing options is that there isn’t a one-size fits all approach. The size of your institution, your strategic priorities, and the financial health of your institution all come into play when choosing which path is the best fit for your institution. A continued evolution of traditional models can offer a transformational impact for institutions centered on quality, transparency and consistency.

If you are interested in learning more about how your institution can leverage program sharing to empower your next phase of online program development, request a call with our Academic Partnerships Team

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