To deal with the twin challenges of making more of their academic courses and programs available online and maintaining a high level of service for the students who take them, many colleges and universities have hired outside companies to run the bulk of their online operations.
But sometimes the traditional tuition-revenue-share arrangement — an all-encompassing online program management (OPM) plan — doesn’t suit an institution’s specific needs. Universities can benefit by joining forces with a company partner that can provide them with an array of options. By giving institutions the chance to pick and choose the services and tools they need to help them grow, a partner can help an institution maximize its online operations and enhance the ways it can serve its students — and all while adhering to an institution’s financial plan.
That level of flexibility sold Northern Illinois University on Wiley University Services. In 2018, as university leaders looked to increase its existing online program enrollment as well as add new programs to NIU’s online portfolio, they recognized that online students might not be afforded the same level of help and outreach as students taking traditional courses. What’s more, the university’s approach to online recruitment wasn’t keeping up with competitors.
“As we considered partnering, we saw how sophisticated online student recruitment and support services are today,” says Jason Rhode, executive director for extended learning at Northern Illinois University (NIU), a public institution in DeKalb that serves 16,000 students. “We saw an opportunity to transform our online recruitment and support efforts, as well as reconfigure our core online program support structure.”
Among other things, NIU leaders wanted help with recruiting and retaining more online students. They wanted a partner who could help the university improve its marketing approach to prospective students, as well as help current online students maintain a high level of engagement with their coursework so they would keep at it until graduation.
In 2018, the university engaged in a request for proposals from potential third-party vendors to provide the needed additional support services in an unbundled, fee-for-service model. Wiley was selected, offering not only the most comprehensive list of services and flexible options, but also the best price for the services needed.
Even before the partnership launched in fall 2019, Wiley’s team got to work providing NIU with the marketing expertise it desired. The company delivered a preliminary market analysis on the best opportunities for online growth, especially in terms of programs. “They would tell us when we weren’t in the best position to succeed,” Rhode says. “They kept the best interests of the institution in mind.”
Once Wiley’s marketing campaigns launched in market, they began to fuel a strong pipeline of potential students interested in NIU’s online programs. The recruitment team was then able to identify and nurture these prospective students, supporting them through the application process. Once each application is complete, a file is passed to the university to make the acceptance decision.
Wiley has also fulfilled NIU’s request for help to hone their online student services. Wiley employees now comprise NIU’s online support team and, augmenting NIU’s advising team, offer course scheduling and coaching support. The mesh of the partnership is seamless: Wiley team members are outfitted with the same campus email addresses as NIU employees and are seen as part of the team by both campus professionals and students.
The NIU/Wiley team is planning to continue to expand the partnership, identifying additional programs to make available online as well as opportunities for further optimizing existing online programs for enrollment growth. Together, NIU and Wiley are working to make online offerings more “student friendly,” Rhode says, implementing process improvements and program format adjustments, such as sequential eight-week-long courses that are less disruptive to the lives of students with jobs.
Their alternative partnership model, with its Á la carte menu of services, has allowed for such growth. “A few years back, we had thought about doing an OPM tuition-share agreement,” Rhode says. “But we decided we wanted the flexibility and to see how our online services would evolve. That way, we’d have the opportunity annually to see what our goals are and where we would need to move forward with a partner.” Wiley understood the university’s need to grow, as well as their reasons for not wanting to pursue a tuition revenue share agreement.
“We explained what we wanted, and Wiley brought us their full menu of services,” Rhode adds. “Wiley provides the expertise, resources, technology, and tailored services to help us meet market needs, increase enrollments, and support the entire student journey.”