The pandemic is accelerating growth in an already expanding online education market. To remain future-ready, colleges and universities are applying agility and innovation in their quest to meet the needs of the online college student population.
Recently, we gathered with representatives from colleges and universities who are navigating the evolving online education space. We brought insights gleaned from our Online College Students Report, which surveyed more than 1,500 past, present, and prospective online students. Webinar attendees brought their questions and thoughts about online education.
They asked about the impact of the pandemic, emerging technologies like texting, and how to best communicate with students. Here are eight of the most interesting questions and what the Online College Students Report 2020 uncovered about them.
What is different, if anything, about online students in 2020 compared to 2015?
Students are looking for study opportunities closer to home. Almost half of online college students are studying within 15 miles of where they live. The geography has gotten slimmer and slimmer over the last few years, in part because more schools are offering programs. Graduate students who want to study niche topics are willing to go further away, but that’s because the programs they want just don’t exist closer to home.
The demographics have also changed. In 2015, the majority of online students were older adults. Today, the median age is between 35 and 37. Further, 19% of students are between the ages of 18 and 24. That number is expected to grow due to the pandemic. In short, it’s probably a mistake to assume that all online students are older adults returning to college.
What impact is COVID-19 having on students’ decisions about choosing online learning?
In March, when the pandemic first got underway, students put their plans on hold, but only for a very short time. By April, we were seeing increases in organic traffic from students researching programs.
The pandemic has pushed more students to pursue degrees and certificates online according to data from our Beyond Benchmarks Higher Education 2020 report. Enrollment in Public 4-year and private nonprofit four-year schools is rising and demand for bachelor’s degrees and graduate programs has grown. This may be because students who would otherwise study in person are choosing online learning. Meanwhile, demand for certificate and associate degrees has dropped.
What shifts have you seen nationwide in higher ed marketing messaging to online students?
Ultimately, most students are motivated by career goals. They enroll in college to increase their pay, start a new career, or position themselves for a promotion. Marketing messages should connect the dots between programs and career outcomes.
The places where students come in contact with marketing messages is shifting as well. Students are spending more time on social media, especially Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. Most also have subscriptions to one or more streaming services. In response, more colleges are investing in OTT advertising.
Keep in mind that online reviews and reputation among friends and employers rank higher in student estimation than any marketing message. Managing your school’s reputation may not be as easy as mailing a flyer to a student, but it’s probably more effective.
What key questions/answers are students looking for on our program pages on the website?
How much does it cost? Money is a primary concern for most students. They want to know how much a program will cost and what value they’ll get for that investment. While having a more expensive program isn’t a deal-breaker, students will want to know what that money is buying for them in terms of opportunities and career advancement. Funding and scholarship opportunities should feature prominently. Students report that as little as $500 in annual scholarship awards may sway them to enroll.
How will this program help me advance my career? Most students enroll with a career goal in mind, so showing them how your program helps meet that goal should be among your top concerns. They want to see that you have connections to local employers in their industry. Testimonials from alumni and employers can help answer this question.
Is this program flexible enough to meet my needs? About 60% of online students are employed full time and a further 16% are employed part-time. They’re busy and they want to know that they can efficiently complete the program in ways that fit within their busy schedules.
How do we demonstrate the value of our online programs on our website and in communication with prospective students?
Use student and alumni stories to promote your programs. Students may trust the testimonials of alumni more than they trust messages crafted by the school. About 42% agree and 37% strongly agree that their online education was worth the cost. That means they’ve seen the value of your programs and may be able to communicate it to prospective students. Similarly, current students can share their experience interacting with instructors, learning new material, and engaging with internships or career services. Their assessment of value could sway potential students to enroll.
How do you engage online students so they feel like part of your community?
Students use career services. More than half use resume creation and work with a career advisor. Nearly half use job search assistance, self-assessments, and the job search website maintained by the school. Help students engage these services and they may feel more engaged with your program in general.
The OCS report also found that many students are willing to visit campus. Invite them when it is safe to do so. Provide networking opportunities and student mixers. Make sure they know about any opportunities happening on campus and that they are encouraged to attend.
What is the best way to partner with Employers during the Pandemic to reach employees?
Although this falls outside the scope of the Online College Students Report, it is a pressing question for many online college programs. Employees still need training and development opportunities even during a pandemic. In fact, social distancing measures may incentivize employers who have been slow to adopt online learning. They know that online college may be the safest way for their employees to get the education they need.
At the same time, students want career services. One way to provide them is to partner with employers. This can help you understand their needs so you can effectively teach and coach students. Many employers are in a period of flux as the pandemic impacts their operations and supply chains. Their staffing needs may be changing as well.
Amid all this change, one of the best ways to partner with employers is to reach out and ask them what they need. Open a conversation with leadership about if and how their employee learning needs have been altered. Employers in different industries and regions may need different things. Opening a conversation can help you address them.
We’ve tried every retention strategy in the book. What are some truly unique and effective retention strategies?
Online learners expect speed. From your first contact with them through graduation, they want their education process to be as efficient as possible. That means responding to their first query within minutes or hours. It might also mean shortening your courses. Feedback from multiple surveys shows that students stick with Undergraduate courses that are 6 to 8 weeks long and graduate courses that are 9 or 10 weeks long. For these students, time is money. Longer courses delay the achievement of their career goals.
Also, post-traditional students tend to be a high-risk population. They’re busy and they have many other responsibilities. Student-focused colleges and universities retain students when they engage students directly. Ask them what factors might get in the way of their studies and work with them to develop strategies to combat these. High-quality advising can make a big difference.
For a deeper look at these topics and other factors impacting the online college student marketplace, watch the webinar and download the Online College Students Report 2020.