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The most recent Noodle Advisory Board meeting was held at the end of January in New York City. The conversations in these meetings are, of course, private and confidential. However, I wanted to share my big takeaways from the conversations with Noodle leadership about the direction of the company and what Noodle’s strategic evolution might say about our broader postsecondary ecosystem.

  1. Noodle Is a Company in Transition

My overwhelming takeaway from the advisory board meeting is that Noodle is a company in transition. And in a good way. Noodle is moving away from positioning itself as the anti-OPM, focused primarily on providing a fee-based general contractor–like set of services and technologies for developing, launching and running online programs. Where Noodle seems to be moving is positioning itself as a partner to universities seeking to leverage technology to transform their core educational and support services.

This evolving positioning of Noodle as a strategic university partner in the nonprofit/for-profit ecosystem is both more positive and ambitious. Noodle no longer defines itself by what it is not—specifically, it is not a traditional revenue share–based or fee for service–based online program manager. Instead, Noodle is transforming its capabilities and services to work with universities to integrate digital platforms, tools and expertise at every stage of the learning journey.

A word used frequently was “agile”; Noodle seeks to support all students—online and residential—and by doing so pushes universities to think about their infrastructures differently and to move toward one marketing operation (that supports both residential and online marketing), one admissions process, one learning platform used by all students and a tech infrastructure that supports the entire university.

At this point, Noodle’s ambition to move beyond graduate online programs and to focus on partnering for institutional tech-enabled transformation is largely aspirational. Noodle may have been assembling these capabilities through both organizational realignment and acquisitions such as Hubble Studios and Meteor Learning (both in 2023), but the majority of its current work with universities centers around discrete online programs with a handful of engagements that support both online and residential operations.

How Noodle makes the leap from providing services, technology and expertise in domains such as digital marketing, program/course design, enrollment management, student support and engagement, placement, and learning technologies to tech-enabled institutional transformation initiatives will be fascinating to observe.

  1. Launching New Online Programs Is Not a Strategy

While Noodle has its work cut out for it in moving from working with schools to build/launch/run individual online programs to partnering for institutionwide tech-enabled transformation, it is also the case universities have a similar journey ahead. For colleges and universities, the creation of a new online program can no longer be considered innovative. A strategy to launch a portfolio of new online degrees and certificates is not truly strategic. With the rapid growth of university-based online programs following the pandemic, the availability of online degrees and certificates no longer serves to differentiate any institution.

If it is true that launching online learning is no longer strategic, it may be equally true that the learnings from online initiatives can help institutions develop a transformation strategy. At most schools (maybe not all), the digital infrastructure to support potential and existing learners is more robust for online than residential programs.

The digital infrastructure delta between online and residential programs is largely due to the twin realities of online programs being launched more recently (therefore having fewer associated legacy structures and systems) and the intense competition to enroll online students. Across domains as diverse as lead nurturing, student journey visibility, flexible start dates and proactive learner support (coaching), the design and operations of online programs look different than the residential programs that predated their arrival.

Creating a fully flexible, agile university, where all degree and nondegree programs are born hybrid and designed as learner-centric (regardless of modality), will not be easy. Structures, systems and policies are in place because they benefit some stakeholders (if not learners), and change management at the institutional level is hard. Noodle clearly sees the need and potential for tech-enabled strategies to contribute to institutional thriving. However, any authentic effort at institutional transformation must originate with university leadership.

  1. Success in the Graduate Degree Market Is Increasingly Challenging

In a takeaway that will come as zero surprise to anyone and everyone involved in graduate-level online programs, it is increasingly challenging (and expensive) to grow enrollment dramatically. In many ways, the schools that are the most successful in the undergraduate residential arena (having many more qualified applicants than spaces) have been the least prepared for the growing enrollment challenges in the graduate online space.

Tuition-dependent colleges and universities have the advantage of necessity. Their marketing, branding, application, enrollment and yield-management strategies are mission-critical for sustaining the financial viability of the school. Universities that are inordinately privileged in many areas (from endowments to applicants) contain online graduate programs that benefit from the institutional brand, but they must compete against a growing number of comparable online programs for every tuition-paying student.

As was discussed during the advisory board meeting, program- (or individual school–) based strategies for online graduate program recruitment are increasingly inadequate to the task. Potential students are likely to view the online program search and selection process through the lens of a university’s brand equity. Only at the most famous and highly selective master’s programs (think the top business schools) is the school’s brand given prominence over the university of which it is a part. For every other graduate online program, recruitment efforts must be linked (to some degree) to the broader university brand. Absent an institutional perspective (much less strategy) for online program marketing and recruiting, individual online programs are increasingly challenged in their enrollment efforts.

Going forward, universities will need to figure out the right balance between developing their central (institutionwide) marketing and recruiting capabilities while preserving the autonomy, flexibility and agility of school-/program-based efforts. While some digital marketing/recruiting centralization (or at least coordination) is likely inevitable for universities offering graduate online degree programs, the pace, design and structure of these changes will vary widely. As will the sophistication of optimizing marketing efforts—some universities will work to optimize online students while others are one step ahead and optimizing for the difficult-to-reach student—think underrepresented demographics, working professionals or first-generation students.

While the university can help its schools with their marketing and recruiting for graduate online programs, it can also cause problems. The ability of academic units to access central institutional services is fantastic—up until the point that those services no longer meet the needs of the schools and programs. Getting this university/school balance for marketing/recruitment right is an area in which Noodle would like to position itself as a potential partner. Whether or not universities take Noodle up on their offer to talk, they will need to find some way to take an institutional perspective on online program marketing.

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