We have now entered the Third Age of online education. The First Age, which ran from about 2000 to 2012 was the age of for-profit universities. Led by University of Phoenix Online, for-profit universities built massive online lead generation machines and call centers designed to generate applications via “speed to lead,” and then convert apps to enrollments and enrollments to starts.
The Second Age, which ran from 2012 to 2019 was the age of the quasi-for-profits. Quasi-for-profits took two forms, both of which borrowed First Age lead generation and enrollment engines. One form was the non-profit online university. Lubricated by the grease of superior brands and non-profit status, their marketing and enrollment machines hummed more smoothly and they soon eclipsed the for-profits in size and relevance even while critics of aggressive marketing of online degree programs continued to press a rearguard First Age action. The other form was online program managers (OPMs): service providers partnering with traditional colleges and universities. They, too, leveraged the marketing and enrollment lessons learned by for-profit schools; some OPM engines were built by the same for-profit executives. To further legitimize the enterprise, OPMs successfully attracted elite university partners, although only at the master’s level, and except in a few cases achieved very limited enrollment in these programs due to rigid admissions requirements.