The appeal of online education parallels an industry trend of growth in nontraditional students seeking faster, more flexible credentialing options. But while online enrollment may be going up across the board, retaining students in programs is a different kind of challenge.
Statistics from two Babson Survey Research Group reports, "Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017" and "Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States," show schools with some of the largest online programs — as well as institutions that are entirely online — have seen substantial drops in enrollment between 2015 and 2016. For instance, two for-profit institutions had significant drops in online student enrollment. The University of Phoenix saw a decline in about 30,000 online students, down from a total of 162,003 in 2015, while Kaplan saw a decline of about 8,000, down from 45,268 in 2015.
The trend is happening at private and public colleges, too. At Liberty University, a private institution in Virginia, online enrollment fell by 4,753 from 72,519 in 2015. Though, several public schools have seen an increase in the number of students participating in distance education, with the University of Central Florida seeing an increase from 33,034 distance students in 2015 to 36,107 in 2016. Below is a sample of various institutions and enrollment trends between 2015 and 2016.
Trends in distance education enrollment 2015-2016 by institution type
Number of students taking at least one distance course — 2015
Number of students taking at least one distance course — 2016
University of Phoenix-Arizona
|Western Governors University||private non-profit||70,504||84,289|
|Southern New Hampshire University||private non-profit||56,371||63,973|
|Walden University||private for-profit||54,543||52,565|
|University of Maryland-University College||public||48,677||50,932|
|University of Central Florida||public||33,034||36,107|
|DeVry University-Illinois||private for-profit||20,458||18,015|
|Arizona State University-Tempe||public||22,809||30,989|
|Liberty University||private non-profit||72,519||67,766|
SOURCE: Babson Research Survey Group
And overall, trends in distance education enrollment appear to favor public institutions, with more students enrolling in online courses at these schools, rather than for-profit privates.
As part of an effort to give students the adaptable online experience they want, several schools have invested themselves phone applications. To assess what institutions are doing and how they’ve used mobile technology to enhance retention efforts, Education Dive spoke with several big online players; we found investing in such applications aligns with student desires, but only when ample research and best practices are applied to the user experience.
Quality mobile-first design
When it comes to investing in the online learning experience, it’s critical to consider the day-to- day lives of adult students, most of whom would rather study between breaks at the work day rather than after work or in the morning, said Damien Cooper, chief technology officer of nonprofit Western Governors University, which provides online-only competency-based education. This reasoning is what drives WGU’s “mobile-first” approach to innovation in its online offerings, Cooper said.
“We want to ensure that wherever our students need to access us they can,” he said. “The goal is whatever you need support for, whether its financial aid or signing up for class, it’s mobile. That’s pretty much our tenant from a design and architecture perspective and we build out everything in a servicing and layer support way.”
WSU has been betting on a mobile strategy for a number of years. “While it’s really easy to go from desktop first, it’s really hard to then retroactively create mobile experience, because there are a lot of technical and design decisions that have to be made,” Cooper said.
Though of course, WGU has faced scrutiny over the amount of quality instruction it was offering, having been part of a larger audit review from the U.S. Education Department's Office of the Inspector General on the efficacy of competency-based education and online degrees.
Even so, statistics from BABSON show WGU had seen nearly a 14,000 increase in online student enrollment between 2015 and 2016. WGU reports an average 73% retention rate for full-time students entering year-to-second year, which is consistent with the national average, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.
“We have seen an increase in students that are highly active on mobile, so therefore focusing on that does drive retention,” Cooper said.
He acknowledged that a quick and massive investment in mobile as a solution to boosting poor retention rates is not the best approach; rather, the move toward mobile needs to be strategic and gradual. To accomplish this, he said WGU created an in-house full-time team of mobile experts that can handle issues across different system types, like iOS and Android. At the same time, the team measures whether students are using the applications often and for academic or social purposes.
At the same time, the institution is committed quality instruction, Cooper said, adding good programs and convenience drive retention. “We have seen an increase in students that are highly active on mobile, so therefore focusing on that does drive retention.”
Jennifer Mathes, director of strategic partnerships at the Online Learnng Consortium, said that the partnership of the two factors is essential to online retention strategies.
“It’s making sure there are [mobile] experiences similar to what they are getting in the classroom. Can you still provide experiential learning so students are not missing out on those key components that are going to transfer to the classroom?,” she said.
Mathes said many institutions she has worked with haven’t seen how they’ve integrated technology or haven’t given the right level of support for the technology that they’ve integrated. “That’s when you get a failure,” she said. “The proper planning is not in place.”
Focusing on the student interaction
When considering retention of students in online programs, it’s critical to focus on support services, but as part of integration in mobile applications as well, said Nancy Cervasio, Arizona State University’s director of online student success initiatives for EdPlus,. With a first-year retention rate of about 86%, according to College Factual and an increase in online enrollment from 2015 to 2016 by about 8,000 students, Cervasio credits ASU’s retention success to investments in student coaching and resources.
“Students have an academic advisor, they have a team for financial consulting. But they also have something called the success coach who works with the student in a holistic manner addressing needs both inside and outside of the classroom,” said Cervasio. “So what that means is that they don’t just deal with scheduling and policy questions, they deal with things in students lives that could impact their academic success.”
Cervasio said that what sets ASU apart from other online institutions is that this focus on student interaction capabilities is the crux of design consideration. This comes forth in the institution’s ‘pitch’ application launched in the last year, which is used for conversations with a success coach, group meetings for first-time students, and seperate channel discussions for students in different programs. Another application called ‘me3” helps students with program guidance to help them find best fit.
And, Mathes agreed having best practices in place first is the way to go. “You’ve gotta look at having best practices in place and giving students the support they need to be successful, without having the right pieces in place or you’re still going to have issues with a successful program,” said Mathes.
In terms of advice to other institutions considering investing in mobile experiences, she says it’s essential to not just create an application with a link to a web browser, because students will not use it. Her other piece of advice is to approach innovation from an entire student-driven mindset, one that factors in both traditional and non-traditional students.
“The population age is really not as different as you would think, the typical college student is probably between 18 and 23, our average age has come down over the last several years as more younger generation students recognize the value of online education,” she said. “The needs for both of the populations are the same but a little bit different in that they want to have something user friendly; but, some of the younger students will want to create a customized look and feel for their applications.”
“Many of our students would rather do things on their device. We have to take advantage of their preferences and how they want to communicate with us when they need it,” she said. “We are always looking at use patterns and then making informed decisions on whether we need to be more creative and innovative. We make adjustments as we go learning from students. There are two focuses, one is university focused and the other student driven.