Your School Should Not Pursue Online Education for the Money

Why we need a different sort of conversation.

January 8, 2018

Have you been discussing the online learning numbers - Who Is Studying Online (and Where) - with your colleagues?

Why should your college or university be in the online learning business?

If the answer is “to make money”, then I can guarantee that things will not end well.

Any online program that has the main goal of revenue generation will, in the end, wind up creating a host of unforeseen and undesirable consequences.

This is not to say that online program should not be economically sustainable, and should make sense from an opportunity cost and investment perspective. They should, and they are.

In some cases it is also true that new online programs can create revenues that can be utilized to support other strategic programs and initiatives. Higher education, like many activities that exist for the public good, relies on cost sharing to survive.

Putting money as the first and ultimate goal of online education will cause a school to make a series of bad choices, while simultaneously closing off other potential benefits of online learning.

The real reason that a college or university should get into the online education game is when such a program aligns with, and supports, an institutions the key strategic goals. Building an online education program should always come after an institution has figured out where its differentiating strengths lie.   

An online program can be a means in which a university, or even a school or department within a larger institution, invests in its areas of excellence.

This differentiating excellence may be around a particular discipline, department, or faculty. Or it could be around a particular brand of active or experiential learning that the institution has built up expertise.

Placing strategic goals and differentiating areas of strength ahead of maximizing revenue will cause a different sort of campus discussion about online education.

An online learning strategy based on institutional strengths, as opposed to perceptions of market demand, will shift how process unfolds on campus. This method will first force a series of honest, and sometimes difficult, campus conversations on what the institution truly does better than other places.  There will be winners and losers in any such conversation, and the role of leadership is to have the discipline and courage to invest in areas of comparative strength.  (And divest in areas that others are doing better).

Only once a clear institutional strategy has been built around areas of differentiating excellence should any online education strategy be enacted.

Why do campus conversations about online learning so often revert to revenue projections and perceived market demand?

What strategies have you found to highlight the potential of online program to build on core differentiating strengths?


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