Brand New Online Heavies

A growing number of nonprofit colleges have become big fish in online education and are targeting a working-adult-student market long-dominated by for-profit institutions. As the competition heats up, better-informed consumers will increasingly seek out online programs based on price and brand strength.

Those were the findings of new research from the Parthenon Group, a strategic consulting firm. Parthenon has conducted previous studies with favorable outcomes for the for-profit sector, but gives nonprofits a bit of an edge in this report, which is dubbed “Are the Sleeping Giants Awake? Non-Profit Universities Enter Online Education at Scale.”

Nonprofits have a lot of ground to make up. The study identified 11 nonprofit colleges that enrolled more than 10,000 online-only students last year, with a total joint enrollment of 280,000. That list includes Liberty University, Rio Salado College and Excelsior College (see expandable graphic). By contrast, the dozen biggest for-profits enroll 818,000 online-only students.

Chris Ross, a partner at Parthenon and the report’s author, said many nonprofits had yet to begin tapping into their potential. For example, even less-selective public universities have plenty of brand appeal in their regions. But relatively few have ramped up their marketing of online programs.

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