The University of Illinois’ “Global Campus“, launched in 2007, set out to serve adult learners with high quality, online university education. However, in May of 2009, the university’s board voted to phase out the project by the end of the year and to lay off many of its staff.

Lee Kantz, a member of the Higher Education Management Group, serves as Global Campus’ Chief Marketing Officer.

KCH. How effective was the marketing program employed at UI’s Global Campus?

LK: We deployed a full range of marketing solutions around each Global Campus program: online lead generation, e-mail marketing, banner and print, SEO & SEM, and much more.  We managed to acquire more than 24,000 leads cost-effectively, and over time we averaged down our cost-per-acquisition to industry standards.  In the early going there was a perception that our programs weren’t succeeding, mainly because our bachelor’s completion programs required nurturing prospective students through pre-requisites elsewhere before they could join our programs.  This situation worked its way out over time, and those programs are now growing as well.

There was an overall perception that marketing didn’t work because of poor numbers, but we did in fact market and recruit cost-effectively.  The poor numbers were more a result of not acquiring a sufficient amount of programs.

KCH. The University of Illinois has three main campuses, each of whom were involved in the Global Campus initiative. I’ve served as a consultant for schools with multiple campuses that sought to build online education operations. I discovered each campus saw itself as largely independent of the others. Was this a factor in creating a cohesive strategy for Global Campus?

LK: Absolutely.  In fact, each campus of the U of I is a separate university, and suffice it to say, there isn’t always a sense of camaraderie among them.  Each has its own culture, history, and strengths.  (UIS, for example, is actually the strongest among them in online education.)  In my first year, UIUC changed its domain name to, which didn’t sit well with UIC and UIS.  I think these divisions affected Global Campus because any University-wide initiative is seen as a distraction to the individual campuses, especially in Champaign-Urbana.  Even if we had broken even (which we were on track to do in 2011), there would have been complaints that the funds should have gone elsewhere.

KCH. I understand that resistance from some U of I faculty was considerable. What was the nature of their concerns?

LK: This is an answer that could be book-length and require a whole bottle of scotch!  But I’m not sure it was as considerable as everyone thinks.  I think there were many supporters of Global Campus, and of online education in general, around the U of I, but the opposition just happened to be very vocal.  Some of it surely consisted of the common perceptions (or misperceptions) about the inferiority of online education, which we found frustrating because our programs were developed with faculty, and their admissions requirements were set by our academic partners on the campuses.  Some of it was fear that we would develop an environment at the University where adjuncts ran wild and tenured faculty weren’t valued, even though faculty worked with us to develop courses, taught many of the courses (and received extra compensation for it), and were set up to function in a master teacher/mentor role over instructors whose qualifications they defined.  (I saw this as no more threatening than having a TA teach a section of a large class.)  Some of it was also frustration left over from the original plan of building an LLC instead of a non-profit unit.  I think our push to achieve independent accreditation was just the final straw.

KCH. Much has been said about the ability of proprietary schools to successfully launch and grow online higher education operations. After your experience at U of I, how optimistic are you that non-profits can compete in this market?

LK:  I came to U of I after running a lead generation business at Monster, and I can say without hesitation that there is no reason why the student acquisition model of the for-profits cannot work at traditional universities.  There are a host of success stories (UMass, UMUC, and many smaller institutions) who offer a counter-argument to the nay-sayers.  I think the first challenge is to get the politics straight, and set up an environment where the entire university is on-board with the initiative.  That clearly didn’t happen at U of I.  I also think the proprietary schools have established the rules for how marketing and recruitment work in online education, and I think non-profit schools struggle with these areas, or they find it distasteful.  That’s why there’s a growing sector of enrollment management services out there.  But we felt we could market and recruit much more cost-effectively than any enrollment management company.

Overall, I don’t think our problems were a result of inability to compete, market, or recruit.  I think the advantage of proprietary schools is the money flowing to them, whereas a public university system doesn’t have the luxury of time that an investor might give to a startup operation in the corporate world.  Because they’re funded by tax dollars, public institutions face a much greater degree of scrutiny.  Case in point: the press was on us from the moment we opened our doors, whereas a startup online university in the private sector would be given two to three years to prove its viability.  In two more years, we would have achieved break-even.

KCH. What’s next for Lee Kantz?

LK: A third child in January.   (I have to focus on the important things.)

Right now, the U of I is in the midst of figuring out how to reconstitute online education at the individual campuses, and I’m joining my fellow Global Campus colleagues in advising individual departments and continuing ed divisions on how to move forward.  Perhaps another role will come out of this for me, especially considering that it makes sense to centralize marketing and recruitment to achieve economies in media buying and operational efficiencies.

But it’s clear that online education is going to be smaller at the U of I for the time being–smaller than I had hoped when I made this transition, so I’m keeping an eye out for the Next Big Thing.  I’ve now overseen marketing at one of the largest online initiatives at a public university system, and I’ve managed a successful education marketing division of a major Internet brand.  I’m confident something will come along that is every bit as challenging.  Either way, I have that third child to look forward to. 🙂