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The online program management market is confusing. There are something like 30 companies (maybe more) whose business is to work with colleges and universities to create online programs. Which companies would you speak with if you wanted to launch an online program? You can't talk to all 30. How do you choose?

This is why I like Orbis Education. Unlike the other OPM providers, Orbis does one thing: health care. That's it. No business programs. No data analytics. No computer programming. Just health care.

Why other OPMs don't specialize is something of a mystery. When you speak to online program management companies, you hear much of the same thing from all of them. They all highlight how committed they are to the success of their partners. They talk about how much money they invest up front to derisk the investment of the school. Each OPM will talk about its high-quality courses and stunning graduation rates.

The problem is that it is very difficult to evaluate the claims of individual OPM providers. There exists no national clearinghouse of independently verified OPM outcome data. The contracts between schools and OPM providers are usually not public. It is very difficult to get representative data on costs and revenues from across a large enough range of schools, programs and partners to make a data-driven decision.

Over all, the players in the OPM industry have not done a good job differentiating themselves from one another. This is one reason why so many higher ed people are so skeptical about the entire OPM model. It is not just the high revenue share (one-half to two-thirds of dollars going to the OPM company) or long-term contract lock-ins (seven to 10 years) that academics are concerned about. It is the fact that every OPM provider claims to be "different," but there is very little data to back that claim up.

Orbis is different. Its model is to create or grow online, blended and residential health-care programs. The company works with schools to create the preclinical courses and with hospital systems to ensure clinical placements. Orbis has also prioritized the development of advanced simulations and virtual labs in order to overcome the challenges of online education for hands-on health-care jobs. It is this specialization in an industry vertical that I really appreciate. It makes it easier for schools to decide which potential OPM partner to work with, and this specialization should ultimate result in a higher-quality student and institution experience.

The challenge with health-care education -- of training nurses and PTs and OTs -- is not demand. There is a huge demand from both prospective students to get into these programs and from employers to hire graduates. The shortage of health-care providers in the U.S. is becoming acute. The rate-limiting step for health-care programs is not demand, but supply. Most schools simply don't have the bandwidth to either develop or grow their health programs. Building online courses and recruiting students is not easy, but that is a known problem. Many OPM providers can work with a school to create new online programs and to market to students to create a robust applicant pool.

If I were thinking about starting or growing any health-related program, I would at least have Orbis on my list of potential companies to speak with.

Even if the decision is to not work with a partner, to not share revenues, to use internal dollars for the development of the program and the marketing and recruitment, I would still take the time to speak with Orbis as a way of gathering information. Think of this as free consulting. Orbis knows the health-care education market because that is all they do.

Will we see other OPM providers follow Orbis's lead and specialize in one market?

Will other companies go into the online health-care education space?

If you are an OPM company, what would you argue is your differentiating factor?

If you are doing research on the online market for your school, and you are curious about this whole OPM partnership model, how do you go about gathering research?

What do you think about the OPM model?

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