Sustainable enrollment growth in online nursing and healthcare programs

by Joseph K. Clark

Like many university administrators nationwide, Nancy Schreiber, Provost and VPAA of Salve Regina University, faced a tough decision around an underperforming program. Her options were straightforward: shutter the RN-BSN program or go online to compete. After extensive deliberation, she felt the best path was moving online. She partnered with iDesign, an online program management (OPM) company known for flexible service offerings, robust instructional design support, and specific niche expertise in nursing and healthcare programs.

Eighteen months later, it appears Salve Regina made the right decision. The RN-BSN has already achieved over 270% growth in enrollments. In response to an overwhelming reception from the market, the university is now offering a suite of nursing programs, including a Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner (MSN-FNP) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).


Mission, Brand, and Partnership

Alignment with mission and brand is one critical dimension of an OPM partnership that every university should consider. “We didn’t want the Salve Regina brand to look different online than we do on the ground. We have some very fundamental values that we share here, particularly around service and social justice. Everything that we do has to reflect that,” explains Schreiber. “We have been very upfront with iDesign in telling them, ‘You are ambassadors of our mission, and you are proxies to this when your team works with these students.'”

To better understand that mission, team members from design spent significant time on campus (when that was still a possibility), inundating themselves with the culture of Salve Regina and building solid relationships with all key stakeholders involved in the initiative. That process showed Salve Regina stakeholders that iDesign offered a unique cultural fit with the university among OPM providers. This was particularly evident in iDesign’s engagement with faculty.

“I think if you talk to any of our nursing and gen ed instructors who teach in this program, they are very impressed and comfortable with iDesign,” recounts Schreiber. “There’s no question that every faculty member that developed their course with iDesign had a robust and disciplined experience creating high-quality education. And you can’t compromise on that. Salve Regina University and iDesign are truly partners. This is not just another vendor relationship.”

Hospital Partnership Network

In addition to comprehensive support for design, digital marketing, recruitment, and student success coaching, the strategy deployed a devoted Employer Partnership Executive to build tuition benefit partnerships with hospital systems on Salve Regina’s behalf. Salve Regina maintains 91 hospital partnerships across the Northeast and other regions today. Approximately 75% of the RN-BSN students enroll through hospital partnership channels.

Schreiber describes the importance of hospital partnerships, saying, “So it’s critical. We see the cascading value proposition of these employer partnerships that go well beyond the nursing programs. It addresses the needs of this particular program and builds those relationships and connections for other programs. As you think about some of the different components of the service stack, like employer partnerships, I would encourage you to ask yourselves, could you see your institutions going out and doing these things? Do you have the resources to go out and build these types of relationships?”

A Suite of Nursing Programs

Through these hospital relationships, Salve Regina began receiving incredible partner feedback. A recurring theme emerged: “Yes, we love the RN-BSN, but do you have an online MSN or DNP? That’s really what our workforce needs?” In particular, Salve Regina received repeated MSN-FNP requests from Boston-based partners. Realizing that the Boston-area nursing workforce was already BSN-qualified, Salve Regina decided to convert its MSN-FNP and DNP into online offerings in partnership with iDesign. Growing a full suite of online nursing programs necessitates robust support to scale clinical placement capacity. iDesign provides Salve Regina with comprehensive clinical placement support through services and software.

Within two months of launching the nursing suite, the Employer Partnership Executive signed 12 new Boston-area hospitals, including one of the largest systems in Massachusetts. These partnerships quickly yielded enrollments for the program. For the first start in January 2021, Salve Regina achieved 72 unique MSN and DNP enrollments. This occurred after only three months of marketing (compared to 12 months for a typical program to generate similar registrations).

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