In-House or Outsource? UPCEA/University of Louisville study explores factors at play in deciding to work with an OPM

October 6, 2022

New Research Offers Insights into the Criteria and Contractual Agreements Chief Online Learning Officers (COLOs) Consider When Deciding to Work With an OPM

LOUISVILLE, KY and WASHINGTON, DC (October 6, 2022) — With the explosive growth of online learning and the accompanying rise of online program managers (OPMs), Chief Online Learning Officers (COLOs) at higher education institutions must balance a variety of needs, limitations, and stakeholder inputs when deciding to engage a third-party provider, according to a just-released study by UPCEA and the University of Louisville SKILLS Collaborative. 

The results of In-House or Outsource?: Chief online learning officers’ decision-making factors when considering online program managers show that although many COLOs chose to work with OPMs for marketing and recruiting, these services largely were not meeting the expectations of those decision-makers. Those COLOs that declined to engage an OPM indicated sufficient internal capacity and capabilities to operate online programs in-house, although some remain open to future partnerships.  

“The competition to expand online learning continues to place pressures on COLOs to explore new strategies, and for some institutions, OPMs serve as an expansion approach,” said Jeffrey Sun, professor, distinguished university scholar, and director of the SKILLS Collaborative at the University of Louisville. “Campuses have drawn on the experiences of either exploring or engaging in OPM partnerships as a learning opportunity to re-evaluate their operational approach and build their capacity and capabilities of their online learning units.”

Researchers found that for many institutions, the drivers behind considering an OPM were in response to perceived changes in online learning and/or evolving institutional needs and priorities. Regardless of the impetus, the study found that COLOs followed a similar process in deciding to work with an OPM: assessment of internal capacity and capabilities, issuing a request for proposals, interviewing and vetting candidates, and negotiating contract or relationship terms with a selected partner. 

“Despite the proliferation of OPMs in recent years, there is little known about how these for-profit companies operate within higher ed,” said Heather Turner, adjunct assistant professor and director of research and policy for the SKILLS Collaborative at the University of Louisville. “This research makes steps towards demystifying the role of OPMs in online education and provides concrete advice for those who may be considering engaging with one of these companies in the future.” 

The study also reinforced that while COLOs are key figures in the decision to engage an OPM, this process typically involves input from other stakeholders from across the institution. The final section of the study includes analysis of the feedback received by study respondents, as well as the key questions that COLOs should consider when discussing a potential OPM partnership with campus leaders.  

UPCEA and the University of Louisville SKILLS Collaborative plan to pursue future collaborative research related to OPMs, including additional information on OPM contract terms and, in the longer term, additional research that is more inclusive of other institutional perspectives on OPMs, as large, public, research universities may be overrepresented in UPCEA’s membership and the research sample. 

“When Dr. Sun and Dr. Turner approached UPCEA to partner on this research we were 100% in, offering unprecedented access to our senior most members in UPCEA,” said Julie Uranis, Senior Vice President of Online and Strategic Initiatives at UPCEA. “COLOs were incredibly generous with their time and shared candid perspectives not found in other OPM research. UPCEA research is unlike others in postsecondary education as it reflects the perspectives of practitioners leading professional, continuing, online, and microcredential programs.”

Read the full study here.



This study adopted a convergent mixed methods design in which qualitative and quantitative data were collected separately and analyzed together. The study’s authors recognized a need for a large sample of COLOs to identify trends in OPM experiences as well as in-depth interviews to elucidate the details of these experiences.

The work of the study began with the development and implementation of a survey of UPCEA’s COLO members (n=92). The quantitative portion of this study provided a baseline understanding of COLOs’ experiences with OPMs, including the services that they turn to OPMs for and whether OPMs meet their expectations for these services. This portion of the study also identified many of the factors that led COLOs to not engage with OPMs or to terminate their relationships. Respondents were asked if they would be willing to participate in the subsequent qualitative phase of the study, which consisted of one-on-one interviews with COLOs and members of the research team (n=32). Interviews were conducted virtually with COLOs across the country and each interview lasted between 20 and 120 minutes.

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UPCEA is the leading association for professional, continuing, and online education. For more than 100 years, UPCEA has served most of the leading public and private colleges and universities in North America. Founded in 1915, the association serves its members with innovative conferences and specialty seminars, research and benchmarking information, professional networking opportunities and timely publications. Based in Washington, D.C., UPCEA also builds greater awareness of the vital link between contemporary learners and public policy issues. Learn more at


About University of Louisville SKILLS Collaborative

The SKILLS Collaborative at the University of Louisville is a research, policy, and programming unit that examines the intersection among learning designs in light of the future of work movement, workforce development policies drawing on innovative practices such as work-based learning, and economic development in response to regional/national opportunities. Learn more at



Molly Nelson, UPCEA Vice President of Communications
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