Several years ago, going online created major advantages—and often record program enrollments—for non-profit public universities. Today, demand for online programs in the U.S. is being met by more than 1,600 degree-granting institutions, creating a saturation point for supply and transitioning online degree programs into more of a defensive strategy than a growth opportunity for schools.

The initial surge in enrollments and revenue that rewarded early movers came from a pent-up demand for higher education among working adults in corporations, public school systems and healthcare organizations. At the time, these students had only a few online providers to choose from, predominately expensive for-profit schools.

Some non-profit universities recognized the inevitable role technology would play in the delivery of instruction. These state schools put high-demand degree programs online and quickly grew their enrollment. They have generally continued to expand their base of online students.

To catch up after years of standing firm in the outdated status quo, universities by the hundreds have been launching online programs. What these new entrants have discovered is that when a school in another region puts programs online, they instantly become available in the homes of every family in their service area. It's a new playing field, where all online providers – regardless of geographic location – can compete locally for students. Whether a new online entrant intends to or not, it attacks the base of local institutions everywhere.

Many "small" university brands that pioneered the non-profit online scene have since become much larger institutions. Through proper marketing of an upgraded online presence, their brands have blossomed into nationally and even internationally known and sought-after institutions of learning.

For example, two public universities in Texas that went online just a few months apart in 2008 – one with a relatively small graduate program in education and the other with a small nursing school – experienced dynamic evolutions. Within 24 months of embracing online programs, one school could boast of having the nation's largest non-profit/public graduate college of education, while the other became the largest nursing school among public universities in the U.S. More than nine years later, both institutions continue to generate enrollment growth. They developed quality programs tuned to the needs of working adults, and they continue to reap first-mover advantages. Those seeking to follow their lead are finding that the road to online success has become complicated.

Two principal hurdles stand in the way of schools looking to make up lost ground online: high recruiting costs (which have more than doubled in recent years) and increased competition. An estimated 87 percent of higher education institutions in the U.S. now offer some type of online instruction.

Success today requires an investment in intelligently designed programs geared to the needs and expectations of working adults as well as highly integrated, data-driven marketing to find the right prospects for a particular program. The winners going forward will be schools that create competitive, affordable programs and back those programs with the right marketing investment, creativity and a a high-quality student experience.