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How Online Degrees at Nonprofit Universities Give Grad Students More Options

January 2022

The commercials for online degrees are almost as abundant now as fast-food ads. Some sound like used car ads, and some press all the right buttons regarding your desire to go back to grad school while perhaps juggling a family and a full-time job.

Schools that only offer online programs where students work at their own pace have largely been the domain of for-profit institutions. However, wanting to dip their toes in this lucrative and growing market, nonprofit universities have enlisted the help of for-profit companies called online program management companies (OPMs), to take on the complex operation associated with these programs.

How they make it work

Successfully running an online degree program takes a lot of front-end management and back-end tech support that many universities don't have the financial or personnel bandwidth to do properly. These OPMs offer a seemingly efficient partnership in shouldering these responsibilities. Bringing on board valuable resources such as marketing and technological support to build an online program is intended to ease the burden for the university.*

While the for-profit OPM manages, markets and recruits for an institution's online programs, nonprofit universities that have adopted and expanded these programs are still accountable to its board of governors or trustees. The programs are usually designed by department professors who are given a good deal of leeway on curriculum, and online offerings can mirror any or all of the on-campus options, ranging from liberal arts degrees to profession-focused ones.

Despite what may sometimes seem like flashy marketing, online programs at nonprofit universities are meant to be extensions of their on-campus counterparts. Your degree will be from the university you attend, whether it was at a bricks-and-mortar building or on a computer in your living room.

If your lifestyle, priorities or just learning style leans toward an online degree, rest assured that your curriculum and degree should be comparable to that obtained on-campus, so it's important to do your research and speak with a recruiter. As you begin your search on, make sure you mark online programs as your preference when filling out your personal profile so that you're matched with programs fitting your priorities.

The differences of going online

While not necessarily academic, there will obviously be experiential differences. For instance, there won't be as much in-person collaboration, although online group projects and interactions are often included in the curriculum depending on your program. And you won't experience campus life, which may or may not be part of your decision to study online in the first place.

Acceptance rates vary as well, depending on the degree being sought. For example, it's typically easier to get into an online MBA program versus a traditional MBA. Carnegie Mellon's acceptance rate for its traditional MBA is 27% versus its online MBA, which is 54%. Some attribute this to the fact that most online MBA candidates have been working in their fields of expertise for a number of years and can target the type of program they are qualified for.

As for testing, online programs vary as much as bricks-and-mortar programs. Some are waiving entrance exam requirements, while some are not, so do your research. Even if the program you're interested in does not require a GRE® score, for example, it may behoove you to take it anyway. As mentioned above, acceptance rates are usually higher for online programs, but many are becoming more selective. It's best practice to give yourself every advantage. Plus, it shows admissions committees initiative, commitment and discipline.

The costs

Many people think that tuition costs for online programs are (or should be) cheaper than in-person costs due to the lack of room and board issues, as well as other fees attached to campus (or near campus) living. However, for the most part they're actually fairly proportionate, but you may be surprised to learn that some institutions actually charge more for online programs.

While universities using an OPM to help develop, recruit, maintain and market their online programs may find their burden more or less alleviated, it comes at a price. Online programs can actually cost more per college credit than for a bricks-and-mortar college credit due mainly to the high cost of technological development and marketing efforts. And contracts with OPMs usually allow for these companies to take more than half of the tuition per student for online programs.

Do your homework

When considering an online program, as with anything else, it is imperative to do your research. Make sure that the program is accredited, that the university is well-reputed, and always read the fine print before committing.

The important thing is that while the majority of graduate students still tend to complete their degrees in person, the online degree audience is growing and universities are doing their best to answer that call by utilizing the vast resources of an OPM, ensuring that every student has a successful graduate experience no matter where they are learning.

* What You Need to Know About Companies That Run Online Programs for Colleges (

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