Are You REALLY Ready to Go National?

There were two extremely interesting articles from Education Dive in recent weeks – As Traditional Colleges Grow Online, OPM Relationships Shift and Do Universities Need to Go National to Stay Relevant which was based, in part, on a recent report from Grant Thornton entitled The State of Higher Education in 2019

“We cannot be left behind as other higher education institutions continue to innovate delivery of services to students. We see other systems and campuses across the country attracting millions of students and generating significant revenue.”  

SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson

The growth in online programs has a lot of colleges and universities seriously considering expanding their geographic market from local/state/regional to national if not global.   

Matt Unterman, a principal at Grant Thornton wrote “prime targets to be gobbled up by a national entity with much more appropriate cost structures and economies of scale,” and he also noted that “…many institutions draw from a national and even an international pool of prospective students, and that online education has helped some institutions vastly expand their footprints.” 

But before you go chasing the gold at the end of the online rainbow…a few things to consider. 


Most institutions draw their online students from 100 to 150-miles from their main campus, per research from Learning House and Aslanian Market Research

According to the report, fully two-thirds of online undergrads were taking online classes less than 50 miles from a campus of the school where they enrolled. Nearly half (45% overall) studied online within 25 miles of campus. More than three in four (78%) online students enrolled at a school with a campus within 100 miles. Source: Forbes 

To add to these facts, Learning House CEO Todd Zipper added, “It’s an important point to understand. Many people may think of online programs as amorphous, everywhere things but they are actually closely connected to the schools and the campuses – both in the minds of students and in reality.” 

This means you are going to be facing an audience mindset that is tied to brand awareness and perceived value – so if your institution is not a national brand, with strong national awareness, you may be looking at an uphill battle to generate leads and enrollments outside your own backyard. 


University of Maryland University College (UMUC) recently announced plans to rebrand itself University of Maryland Global Campus as part of their plans to expand their already historic brand as a top online university in the U.S. and extend that brand internationally.

With that name change came $500 million in marketing funding from the State of Maryland. And this is an institution that benefits from its longstanding reputation (since 1947) as a leader in non-traditional education delivery and its affiliation with the University System of Maryland, specifically the brand awareness generated by the System’s flagship, University of Maryland College Park. Other major players with a well-developed headstart in brand awareness and quality programming and delivery are Penn State and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

To be sure, a marketing budget is not all you will need. Significant investments will most likely be necessary in the areas of personnel and technology so that your institution can scale up and respond quickly, appropriately to the increased volume of inquiries, applications and enrollments. 

The old adage of ‘it takes money to make money’ is very true – and often overlooked. 


“(Traditional colleges) have this challenge where they say, ‘There’s this audience, we’re not serving them as effectively as these other models … (which) are doing things we can’t really do, either because we don’t know how or because we’re not set up in a way to easily do it,'” stated Trace Urdan, a managing director at Tyton Partners. 

For many, OPM has been the route chosen – but there seems to be little hard data available to determine if this works.  (Check out “Strategic Planning: 8 Tips for Successful Partnership Programs”)  

From revenue sharing models to fee-for-service models to hybrid models that start off with revenue share and switch to fee-for-service once the program starts generating money – there are options to quickly gain access to the expertise and resources needed to focus on the larger geographic market. 

That said, entering into an OPM agreement – a one with higher potential for success – requires clearly defined goals, objectives, strategies and tactics as well as roles and responsibilities so that the student experience reflects the institution, not the OPM, and an exit strategy


For many, the self-imposed rush to scale leads to a focus on geographic area rather than audience – and that can lead to a series of expensive mistakes. 

Focus on your audience. Who are they? How many are there? Where are they? 

Why? Because the entire population of the U.S. is NOT your audience, so the entire U.S. is not as important as the audience you serve. When the focus is placed on the geographic market, expectations become unrealistic and wasted resources follow. 

Remember, most of you reading this are not going to be receiving $500 million to fund a national effort. Your resources are more modest, so focus on working smarter. 

So I suggest you start to work with a data company like Nielsen Claritas because they can help you identify your segments based on your existing student data and then locate those like your current successful students across the U.S. down to the homes they live in. 

For many of you, a significant increase in enrollments may come from more effective promotional efforts within your current target geographic market.  So, look at the data for the 150-mile radius around the institution – and start by focusing on how to get more of these people in this area to enroll with you. 

If you do decide the numbers of potential students in your current geographic market aren’t large enough to achieve your goals, look for areas with a high-density of your target audience and pick geographic markets that play to your strengths rather than try to take on the entire U.S. market and every other institution within the U.S. 


There’s a great deal of urgency within many institutions regarding “getting to scale fast” but you might want to take a step back from the self-imposed urgency and take a few moments to explore and better understand your own strengths and weaknesses as well as external opportunities and threats.  

Rushing into an OPM agreement might work – or it might fall far short of expectations. The same is true about rushing into a national student recruitment effort. 

Instead, take the steps necessary to understand who your audiences/segments are, where they are and then determine how best to use your own strengths to pursue those opportunities. 

Written by

Strategic turnaround consultant and writer.

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