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“Maryville … is that in Ohio?” a source asked.

Actually, Maryville University, a small private nonprofit institution, is about 22 miles from downtown St. Louis.

The institution may not be particularly well-known. But if Mark Lombardi, the university's president, succeeds with his plans for Maryville, it will become a national name.

With the help of education company Pearson, Maryville is planning a rapid expansion of its online arm. Maryville Online will begin 10 new online undergraduate degrees this fall -- a significant expansion of the university’s existing online catalog of four bachelor's, 14 master's and nine doctoral degrees.

The institution hopes to double its online enrollment (currently about 4,200 students) in the next few years. Maryville launched a national TV and radio campaign called "Let's Be Brave Together" earlier this year. But even with a big marketing budget, success for Maryville Online isn't a sure thing. Pearson has faltered with some high-profile online program management partnerships in the past, and catching up with established players in the space will be a challenge.

The motivation behind the expansion of Maryville Online is to broaden educational opportunities for working adults while also increasing enrollment, said Lombardi.

Working adults are a demographic that Lombardi feels Maryville is well suited to serve, having offered weekend and evening programs since the early 1980s. Providing more fully online undergraduate degrees will give these students greater flexibility, he said.

Citing a statistic from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Lombardi said more than 31 million people in the U.S. have earned some college credits but no degree. Many of these people are in jobs with “limited career prospects,” said Lombardi. “This is a national issue.”

So far, the institution has received more than 17,000 inquiries about its new undergraduate degrees. In addition to Missouri, many have come from California, Texas and elsewhere across the U.S. The typical information seeker has been between 25 and 40 years old, with some college credits.

Partnering With Pearson

As Maryville's OPM partner, Pearson is coordinating marketing and recruitment for the university's online programs. Pearson is responsible for guiding students through the degree-selection process and also runs student support and help-desk services.

Lombardi said Maryville considered several different OPM providers, but that Pearson “stood head and shoulders above the others.”

“They really embraced our ethos and our desire to provide the highest-quality education to the greatest number of people,” said Lombardi. “We’re in charge of the design and delivery of the curriculum, and they’ve helped us with marketing and admissions. We both know what lane we’re in and we’re focused on doing the best we can.”

Lombardi said partnerships with industry are an important part of Maryville’s philosophy. “There are times when you decide you can do something alone, but in many ways it’s better if you can partner with industry and develop a more robust and cutting-edge approach.”

Both Pearson and Maryville declined to comment on their financial arrangement. But Bob Atkins, CEO and founder of Gray Associates, said it's typical for OPMs to give institutions a large sum of money up front to develop online courses, then to take a 50 to 60 percent cut of the tuition revenue.

Maryville’s partnership with Pearson began around five years ago, when the university launched its first online degree, a master’s in nursing. The success of the nursing program, which has around 3,100 students enrolled currently, led to discussions about expanding Maryville’s online offerings, said Lombardi. “We knew if we could create a very rigorous and high-quality program in nursing, which has all kinds of governance relating to quality, we could do just about anything in the online space,” he said.

Launching 10 new online degrees simultaneously is not cheap. The investment is “in the range of several million dollars” said Lombardi, which includes paying for new technologies, technologists and learning designers. A team of around 20 people is working to create the online degrees, but Lombardi said he could see this expanding to 40 or 50 in the next few years.

Dan Viele, dean of the school of adult and online education at Maryville, said each learning designer worked closely with faculty members to take a degree online. Each online program can take up to six months to develop, he said.

Grabbing a Slice of the Pie

When asked how big he wants Maryville Online to become, Lombardi says he “doesn’t have a number in mind” but would consider it a “tremendous victory” if in five years’ time he could identify 5,000 to 10,000 students who were able to get good jobs because of their Maryville degree. "We’re talking about millions of potential students -- it’s a big pie, and there’s plenty to go around."

Lombardi said there is a gap in the market for online undergraduate degrees. “Many institutions have looked down their noses at offering online undergraduate degrees; they have viewed it as somehow ‘less than,’” he said. “The reality is that you can offer incredibly high-quality online degrees at the undergraduate and graduate level if you design it in the right way.”

Studying online at Maryville is cheaper than on campus, but Lombardi doesn’t believe the online programs will cannibalize students from the university's in-person degrees. “Eighteen-year-olds go to college to study and learn but also for a life-changing experience, to get away from their parents, to get some degree of freedom and autonomy. It’s hard to imagine that all the 18-year-olds in America are going to want to stay in their parents’ house and take classes online.”

Standing Out

Lombardi is convinced Maryville can fill a niche online, but Atkins said the institution may have trouble standing out. “When you’re working with an OPM, there’s no real reason not to launch multiple programs at the same time, but the list of programs is pretty generic. Competing in those programs is going to be a challenge -- it’s going to be very resource intensive to get a substantial foothold in those markets.”

The new online bachelor’s degrees include programs in communications, criminal justice and forensic psychology. Also included is general studies, with concentrations in health care, liberal studies, organizational leadership, psychology, financial services, management information systems and marketing.

“A critical questions is how Maryville will differentiate itself,” said Atkins. “Some schools really emphasize internships, a hands-on approach, perhaps a religious outlook or famous faculty. I don’t know what Maryville’s niche is,” said Atkins. There are some “very large, well-funded, extremely well-managed players in this space,” he said, and competing with institutions like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Grand Canyon University and others would be tough. “But Pearson knows that,” said Atkins. “They should be able to pull it off if they put the resources behind it.”

Trace Urdan, a managing director at Tyton Partners, a higher education consulting firm, agreed that Maryville’s plans would require “a significant amount of marketing and ambition,” he said. “Competing on a national scale will take an enormous investment, and depending on the nature of the financial arrangement, may involve a fair amount of risk on the Pearson side,” said Urdan.

Urdan said there are parallels between Maryville and Southern New Hampshire. SNHU was once, like Maryville, a small nonprofit private institution, but it now enrolls more than 90,000 students online. However, the notion that Maryville might follow a similar trajectory is “not at all assured,” Urdan said.

“Maryville has a very bold strategy, but it will be much harder for them. SNHU was early in that space and grew during a period when there was a rapid decline of for-profit schools. That easy growth time is behind us,” said Urdan.

Having an OPM partner (which SNHU didn’t) should reduce the risk for Maryville, said Urdan and Atkins. Urdan said the partnership of Maryville and Pearson is an interesting one. “There are lots of OPMs that specialize in smaller institutions,” he said. “This is not normally Pearson’s go-to. But perhaps what distinguishes Maryville is its ambition and desire to expand in the undergraduate space.”

Joshua Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (and an Inside Higher Ed blogger), said partnering with an OPM is a good option for institutions looking to develop premium online programs. But it can be very difficult for colleges and universities to understand what an OPM can offer, Kim said, since the outcomes of university-OPM partnerships are so opaque and the contracts are frequently kept under wraps.

“It’s very difficult to understand how the various OPM providers differentiate themselves from each other,” said Kim. “Each of these players will tell you the same thing -- that they are about quality, that they are flexible, that they are committed to the institution’s success.”

The Maryville/Pearson partnership could be an opportunity for greater transparency regarding OPM partnerships, said Kim, but both entities would need to decide that it is “better to be as open and transparent as possible, and to invest resources in independent scholarship around this model.”

What’s in It for Pearson?

In recent financial reports, Pearson has described its OPM division as one of the fastest-growing sectors of its business. After Arizona State University, Maryville is Pearson’s largest OPM partnership with regard to the number of programs being offered. As of 2017, Pearson had 39 institutional OPM partnerships in the U.S.

Kevin Capitani, president of Pearson’s North American business, said he anticipated a lot of growth in the online undergraduate space. “We’re not the only ones doing this, but we’re probably a little ahead,” he said. The real competition for Pearson in the OPM market isn’t coming from other OPM businesses but from institutions that decide to develop online programs by themselves.

Further OPM partners are in the pipeline, said Capitani, but it’s too early to reveal any names. “We want to build this out. But the institutions have to have the culture that we’re looking for. They have to fit the criteria that we’re looking for. Maybe they fit a regional map that we’re going towards,” he said.

Capitani said Maryville has been an excellent partner because of the institutional support that its president commands. "Lombardi talks about keeping the rigor and the discipline that’s required in the classroom, but making everything outside the classroom simple for the student. That student-centric approach is something we share. It’s really refreshing to deal with a team like that."

OPMs typically give institutions a large up-front investment, but the business can be extremely lucrative as enrollment grows, said Phil Hill, co-founder of Mindwires Consulting and an author at the eLiterate blog. OPMs often sign long contracts with institutions to ensure they recoup their initial investment and sometimes negotiate a flat fee on top of their revenue share. But with 50 percent or more of students' tuition, OPMs can quickly earn millions. “A couple of thousand students can be very profitable for both the school and the OPM vendor,” said Hill.

Though Pearson is experienced, it doesn’t have a spotless track record with ambitious OPM deals. The University of Florida dropped Pearson after its partnership “didn’t work out as envisioned,” said Hill. The California State University System also had issues. Though Pearson has made some mistakes, Hill says that might not be a bad thing for Maryville: “They’ve spent some time learning how to do it, working out which partners are doing the right things.”

Undergraduate students are a much more challenging market than graduate students, as the students might lack the persistence and time-management skills to succeed online, said Hill. He added that allowable tuition at public institutions is much lower for undergraduate degrees than graduate degrees -- meaning that institutions are able to charge much higher prices for graduate programs.  

Many OPMs want to move into the undergraduate space, but doing so is hard, said Hill. “I think we’ll continue to see OPM vendors trying to get into undergrad, but that doesn’t mean they’ll succeed.”

Viele, Maryville's dean of adult and online education, agreed that developing undergraduate degrees online presents greater challenges than graduate degrees.

The cycle time for graduate students is much quicker, and they typically don’t bring transfer credit from different institutions. For the undergraduate degrees, Viele said Maryville has had to expand not only its technical team, but also its admissions, advising and student support services teams. It might take years for a working adult to finish their undergraduate degree, but Viele said he feels the university has the support system to keep students engaged and on track to graduate at whatever pace they need. Though much of his experience is in graduate programs, Viele said he feels confident that the undergraduate degrees will be popular.

"The talented team that we've brought together, the tech infrastructure, our analytics -- I think those all give us an advantage in how we're approaching this," said Viele. "We have a great product and a great model, and our relationship with Pearson at the front end will help us succeed."

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