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The Online Education Dilemma: In-House Vs. External Partnerships

October 2, 2023

By John Katzman, Founder and CEO

‍In recent years, advancements in technology have made it easier to transition traditional education programs into online or agile* offerings. Building online capacity is critical: 50% of graduate students, 25% of undergrads, and the great majority of lifelong learners now study entirely online. 

‍At the same time, higher ed is under significant financial pressure. Especially as the cost, rigidity, and opacity of traditional revenue share models becomes clear, universities are inclined to manage online services in house.

‍That may be an error; research by CHLOE and Eduventures reveals that programs primarily developed in-house are typically half the size of those created through partnerships. And enrollment growth is only one piece of it. In house efforts typically yield significantly lower quality learning design and student support, especially since support of those efforts requires sufficient enrollment to justify that expense. 

‍The most effective approach involves combining internal capabilities with external partnerships. What follows is Noodle’s suggested approach to each component of a blended path.


Inside: A university’s head of enrollment management should oversee all decisions about spend, including the balance between enrollment growth targets and the average cost of student acquisition.

Noodle: We deploy strong technology, constantly test new approaches, and leverage our network to create new opportunities for cost-effective, mission-consistent growth. Examples include:

  • Rapid development of SEO-driven websites tailored to specific campaigns;
  • Cost-effective digital media buying, tightly integrated with recruiting efforts;
  • Strategic partnerships with EdAssist and Workforce Edge for corporate tuition assistance programs.
  • A novel approach to lifelong learning, providing universities with direct access to students and corporations for non-degree programs.
  • A streamlined method for health systems to recruit nurses, offering prospects a free education and a guaranteed job, while simplifying clinical placements.


‍Online programs generally engage prospective students within minutes, while on-campus programs barely engage prospects at all. Given that 60% of prospects come in outside business hours, the shift to an agile approach argues for engaging all prospects. 

Inside: The admissions office should field sufficient counselors to respond to each inquiry within 10-30 minutes; this is more difficult outside of business hours or during peak seasons.

Noodle: A combination of technology and people, who can work alongside the marketing and internal admissions teams, to drive yield:

  • Advanced technology solutions, including a carefully tuned Salesforce-based CRM, incorporating real-time lead scoring, multi-channel communications, and, increasingly, AI to increase counselor productivity.
  • Comprehensive hiring, training, and oversight of admissions counselors to flank internal counselors during peak seasons or off-hours.
  • Collaboration within the Noodle network allows schools (at their sole discretion) to respectfully redirect prospects to one another, reducing collective marketing costs by up to 30% after expending significant effort to attract them.

Student Support & Placement

‍Over the past two decades, universities have strengthened their student support and academic advising, but at most, the cost of these services has risen dramatically (on average, they are now a larger portion of the budget than instruction). 

Inside: Advisement, financial aid, Title IX compliance, campus safety, and other support organizations are a key function of the university.

Noodle: It is most efficient, however, to insert a support layer between those students and those departments, especially when many students are off-campus or in different time zones. Noodle helps schools efficiently manage this tier-1 support through software that analyzes data from multiple systems, compares them to data from other institutions, and connects observations to concrete actions. We also provide support coaches as a flexible and well-trained resource; for example, Noodle assists many schools in making quicker and more effective placements of teachers, nurses, and other professionals into clinical rotations. Again, this is especially useful when the student body is widely dispersed.


‍The digital transformation of higher ed starts with the technology itself.

InsideMost universities do not have the funds or desire to fully evaluate and integrate outside software or to create their own. As a result, many still operate data centers and few have pulled together their infrastructure in ways that delight students, faculty, or administrators.

Noodle: While there’s no shortage of software companies offering solutions for higher education, the key is to select the right providers and then integrate and customize their offerings effectively. Noodle, which was originally built as a next generation Online Program Manager (OPM), built our systems to be integrated in ways that optimize institutional operations and competitiveness. These systems include:

  • Learn to enhance the learning experience.
  • Manage for real-time performance tracking and optimization.
  • Engage to improve recruiting and retention efforts.
  • The Noodle Learning Platform (NLP) designed for lifelong learning initiatives.

‍Noodle’s infrastructure allows institutions to leverage benchmark data to identify problems and opportunities. This approach enables institutions to optimize resources, reduce costs, and enhance efficiency while exploring new methods of delivering learning to their alumni network or future enrollees.

Learning Design

‍The concept of a course varies widely, ranging from an asynchronous MOOC to a sophisticated course employing active learning techniques and virtual simulations. And the definition of quality varies wildly as well.

Inside: An increasing number of schools have created learning design centers to help professors sculpt their courses. 

Noodle: Those centers cannot be staffed for peak periods, however, and often lack the ability to create more complex simulations and animations. Pairing that group with Noodle allows institutions to allocate resources efficiently and embed interactive learning objects as needed.

‍Some of those learning objects can be expensive. Allowing Noodle to share them with a carefully selected handful of other network members, much as a few universities create and share business case studies, can lower costs by 75% without making a school less differentiated.


Inside: Only a school’s leadership can understand its mission, capabilities, and human dynamics.

NoodleAn outside firm can bring perspective and research capacity to complex situations. The question is which one for which situations. While consulting firms like Heron, Parthenon, and McKinsey are valuable partners for many strategic issues, the transition to online and blended learning necessitates specific expertise that only those with a track record of delivering online programs at scale can provide. Noodle guides schools toward best practices, attractive markets, and helps them navigate common obstacles on the path to achieving competitive growth while embracing a more agile and cost-effective model.


‍Given cost and other constraints, it is understandable that some universities would lean into in-house services. But partnering with Noodle provides access to a network of over sixty global institutions, creating opportunities for cost savings through benchmarking, economies of scale, shared technology and content, and marketing collaboration. As the landscape continues to evolve and needs and capacity change, we believe that Noodle will prove to be a uniquely useful part of your infrastructure.

* Noodle defines agile as a support structure that does not differentiate between students who primarily study on campus and those who do so online. One student body, one marketing, enrollment, learning design, support, and placement effort. This approach proves to be more efficient, resilient, and responsive than a siloed one.

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