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My friend and colleague Lee Bradshaw has transitioned from chief strategy officer at Noodle to starting his own consulting company, Rhodes Advisors. Through my participation on the Noodle Advisory Board, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with Lee, and I am excited for his next adventure. Lee graciously agreed to answer my questions about Rhodes Advisors.

Lee Bradshaw, a light-skinned man with brown hair and a beard, wearing a collared shirt under a jacket.

Q: Tell us about Rhodes Advisors and why it needs to exist. How are you planning to partner with universities to answer their short- and long-term goals?

A: Thanks for inviting me to talk about my new venture with you, Josh. It’s been great working with you in different capacities for the last decade, and I hope that you’ll find Rhodes Advisors is an exciting new chapter for me and my team. I love your question, but before I delve into specifics with the depth your readers deserve, let’s set the stage with some current context.

Over the last 20 years, online program managers and online learning platforms have spent billions of dollars to establish and iterate online education delivery and the growth strategies that could help universities expand and launch programs in this modality and expand their market reach. The executives and investors didn’t spend that money indiscriminately; it went toward serious research, development and infrastructure building.

During that investment period, so many lessons were learned as the paths were cleared. But today, we’re all acutely aware that as the needs of higher ed evolved, the model expired faster than pivots or acquisitions could keep up with. Universities began to develop their own internal resources to administer online programs, and they no longer needed a bundle of services. The online modality was also increasingly becoming an important strategic growth strategy, and universities were reluctant to cede too much control.

As Nietzsche might say, “OPM is dead.” And I would agree with him. But online education is growing faster than ever, so for those of us who plan to be here for the long haul, we’re just getting going! I think of this post-pandemic moment as a waypoint in a decades-long arc that online education is on. And I say all of this as someone who helped to create one of the largest OPMs and then proudly contributed to an alternative, anti-OPM path at Noodle. It is ironic, but that was what was needed for a changing and growing market.

So, why partner with a consulting firm staffed with operators and strategists who intimately understand online education?

For those higher education leaders trying to avoid financial or reputational risks in the next decade, the letter “M” in the aforementioned three-letter acronym describing a dozen ed-tech companies is the one to pay the closest attention to when you’re thinking about building a team to launch programs using on-campus resources. Why do I say that? Managing is hard, and managing highly complex systems can be very hard. And that’s before adding humans into the system. Launching and growing an online program is difficult, and I liken the process to a rocket launch. The time from when the rocket leaves the ground until it escapes our atmosphere is chock-full of risk, and the level of difficulty changes over time. Each stage of the process requires unique knowledge, skills and a tailored flight plan.

For online programs, the trickiest part is the time between ideation at day zero and maintenance starting at [roughly] day 730. However, some of the risks can be mitigated by good planning, involving a team of experts with prior experience, benchmarking data from previous launches and harnessing innovative technology developed specifically for the mission. When a university engages with Rhodes Advisors, they are equipping themselves with those resources and can immediately start planning for their journey.

For the next 10 years, a consulting firm of this sort aimed at higher ed must be staffed with operators, be capable of independence and objectivity, price their engagements fairly, and be co-responsible to ensure that our beloved proverbial program rockets exit the atmosphere safely. To sum it up, that’s why Rhodes Advisors exists, Josh.

My experts and I have pored over the finance, marketing and design details of online programs for the last two decades, and we have a combined 300-plus years of experience to pull from. We’ve been executives at OPMs, founders of ed-tech firms and deans and provosts of universities responsible for launching online programs.

All that said, I’m not implying that universities with some of the most intelligent leaders and staff in the world can’t do it without Rhodes Advisors. The reality is they likely can. But are internal investments in all of the requisite resources a good investment right now? The successful launch and growth of online programs require specialized skills that you may not need permanently in the long term. Why not rely on experts who can be leveraged where and when you need them?

That was a long answer, and I hope it’s helpful to your readers. An easier question to answer is why did I name it Rhodes Advisors? That’s because my first child was born in the last year, too. His first name is Rhodes, and I love the name. And my wife, Alexis, would tell you I’m a very sentimental guy.

Q: How are you planning to differentiate Rhodes Advisors from other consulting and research firms?

A: To answer this, let’s look at the big bodies of work that need to get done, and I’ll accompany them with the usual questions/challenges I most often hear from anyone considering launching and maintaining online programs.

At the highest level, any leader will need to broadly focus on strategy, planning, research, design, implementation, service delivery and iteration. You could cut it slightly differently, but for this answer, let’s use them as the construct.

Here are the most common questions I get:

  1. Strategy. What type of organizational structure do we need to support these programs? What is the appropriate amount of budget to deploy toward this structure? Should we piggyback off our existing RCM budget model or create something new? What do we call the center?
  2. Planning. When should we launch our first program and what work needs to be done with our accreditor? Which services will we retain in-house and which do we need to outsource in the short and long term? Who is most equipped to run the initiative or should we hire?
  3. Research. Which programs should we start with? What are our competitors charging for similar programs? What is our estimated marketing cost per student as a percentage of net tuition?
  4. Design. Which programs will require more synchronous learning, which should have semesterly on-campus immersions and which will require remote clinical placement? And what will the brand of our online programs consist of? How does each curriculum map in an online program?
  5. Implementation. How do we integrate our lead forms into Slate/Salesforce? And how does that data make its way into our SIS/LMS? When should our marketing partner begin advertising? For the health programs, which hospitals do we need contracts with and how do we track remote clinical placement progress? What other federal/state regulations do we need to follow?
  6. Service delivery. Are the existing online courses that were built by our in-house learning design team properly functioning? Is the company we hired for marketing adequately monitoring our campaigns? Does our inbound marketing strategy have enough unique content to raise our search engine ranking? Is someone responding to enrolled student inquiries promptly?
  7. Iteration. How can we increase the satisfaction survey results of our students? How do we decrease the learner acquisition cost for our programs by contracting with local and global employers? When is it time to upgrade our LMS functionality? How do we raise our online program rankings?

Each of these questions takes research and time to answer. A consultant can be a huge asset. Consulting firms have the experience and background to focus on high-level strategy, planning support, broad market research, design and select other custom services as needed. The OPM industry has been heavily criticized because their university partners had to hold them accountable against benchmarks they either read about in industry publications or heard about at conferences. I’d also argue that incentives weren’t always aligned regardless of the financial model.

Rhodes Advisors is different. We will hold ourselves accountable and be fully transparent with our data. As an illustration on the matter of data, a decent lead-to-enroll rate for a degree program in online higher education is about 3 percent. But how do you get the marketing firm you hired to achieve 4 percent? And what is the value of that?

From my experience, there are a limited number of people at universities today who know how to answer those types of questions. The experts at Rhodes Advisors have this expertise. Ten years from now, more universities may have these specialized people, but they need them today. We’re all aware of what “online” means these days (e.g., hybrid, HyFlex, didactic with remote clinical placement, synchronous and asynchronous modules, etc.), and there is no shortage of programs that have forged into medicine, nursing, artificial intelligence and legal education to offer blueprints for how to design a program and its curriculum arc, so accreditation is not at risk. This means picking tech solutions and programs is table stakes today.

The conventional—and quite expensive, I must say!—consulting firms head out after giving you their rinse-and-repeat strategic and high-level advice. I’ve personally seen R-1s with million-dollar reports that have another university’s name left in them erroneously. Further, the majority of education-tech and service providers will sell you what they already offer during any such consulting engagement. We employ a different approach—concierge service from a boutique firm of experts designed to get you off the ground and then called upon when needed. Most critically, we won’t advise and just wish our clients good luck. We stand ready to actively assist in implementing the strategic advice we offer.

Q: If you had the time of an elevator ride with a university president or provost to share your thoughts on what they should be paying attention to in the online learning world, what would you say?

A: First, I would tell them they have the most challenging jobs of anyone I know during this moment of constrained resources and immense change. And it’s not going to get easier anytime soon.

Second, the cost of digital marketing is skyrocketing. But dollars can be invested wisely with the right strategy and the right people around you—one that has the characteristics of retirement investing rather than day trading. (Full disclosure, I copied that line from one of our advisors, Jeff Herbst.) And to implement a strategy like retirement investing, you don’t need to hand over your content to a platform or lock yourself into long-term OPM revenue-sharing agreements, even though those may seem to be the easiest paths short term.

Third, I’d remind them that relying on past strategies is no longer sufficient. They must be nimble, adjust to the evolving changes in the market and build or supplement internal teams that are flexible and focused on doing what is necessary to be competitive. I think it’s important for presidents and their leadership cabinets to take an even broader, hard look at their P&Ls alongside their CFOs and figure out where efficiencies can be found to keep staffing head count proportionate to university revenues for the next decade. I am not suggesting short-term staffing reductions; I am advocating for a growth mindset that embraces staffing models that take fractional roles (also known as “matrix organizations”), temporary staffing augmentation and, of course, AI tools into account. Just about every industry is going through this exercise today, and as tedious as it can be to look at efficiency models, it’s the right thing to do right now to remain durable and competitive. Rhodes Advisors can help with that, too.

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