With nontraditional students quickly becoming the new traditional, online degree programs have increased in prominence. As U.S. News & World Report noted in September, their reputation has also risen to that of an alternative, equally prestigious route.
The latest study from Babson Survey Research Group shows that while online enrollment has slowed, its still grew 3.7% in 2014, increasing to 5,257,379, and a majority of higher ed leaders reported that it's essential to long-term strategy. But in a more competitive market, what do colleges and universities need to do to make sure they differentiate their offerings and stay in the game.
We spoke with Pearson Senior Vice President of Online Learning Services Todd Hitchcock, who shared the following five strategic tips with us.
1. Institutions should be aware of their brand
While a successful online program must be part of the institution's core strategy, it's up to the institution to know its brand and how to sell it. A community college can't sell its online program the way an Ivy League institution might because each has its own audience of prospective students.
"It’s difficult if you have a very local brand that’s not necessarily known nationally to draw students in, because students don’t just come organically anymore," says Hitchcock. While a larger university might be able to offer a wider variety of online programs and pull in national and international students on name recognition, the community college is better off keeping in mind the needs of people in the immediate region.
2. Cost and value must be aligned to the students a program serves
According to research conducted last year by Ed Tech: Focus on Higher Education, 60% of online students work full-time and 46% are taking courses online to advance their current career. Some of those students also have families they're juggling along with a job and coursework. For that reason, the cost of the program must be worth the value it ultimately provides to the student in order to be successful. For what it's worth, the Ed Tech research also shows that a third of online students study business, and 53% of online graduates make between $25,000 and $84,000 a year.
Hitchcock told us that a key component of providing value is making sure a course carousel is in place, allowing students to take the course when they're ready to take it. "If that is not in place and if we don't have a course ready for you when you're ready to take it, the probability of you persisting through an entire degree goes down exponentially," he says.
3. Online programs need demonstrable outcomes
Drawing on the previous point, institutions and the departments within them must be able to demonstrate the outcomes of their online programs to prospective students. Does it have clear, measurable, realistic goals and a timeframe for measuring those goals?
Hitchcock says that the data he's seen suggests that the most successful online programs will include degrees that are going to facilitate a move from underemployment to full-employment, or help a person change careers or get a job in the first place. With that in mind, it's probably not a bad idea to prepare specific examples of what graduates of that program have gone on to do, or even have pre-recorded videos (or schedule live Google Hangouts) with graduates who can discuss their path and how the program benefited them.
4. Online degree offerings shouldn't be the same as every other institution
As touched on previously, the online learning marketplace has become much more competitive. As a result, colleges and universities have to go the extra mile to set their individual programs apart. If you're the University of North Carolina, for example, you have to play up what sets apart your online MBA offered through 2U from the online MBA programs at Temple and the University of Indiana-Bloomington that you're tied for No. 1 with in U.S. News' Best Online MBA Programs.
And while the 12th Annual Survey of Online Learning from Babson Survey Research Group (of which Pearson was a co-sponsor) shows that traditional institutions are outpacing online enrollment at for-profits, which pioneered the model, it's necessary to keep in mind how to stand out against their offerings as well. They're still frequently among the most popular — but they also tend to be more aggressive with their marketing.
5. Institutions must be adaptable
"That sounds kind of strange, but most of our higher ed institutions, they have been around and delivering on-ground and legacy programs, some of them for over 100 years," says Hitchcock. "And the ability to adapt is absolutely critical."
As many institutions have figured out over the last decade or more, there's more to a successful online program than just recording some lectures and throwing them online, essentially trying to present the course as it would be taught in a traditional classroom and on a similar schedule. Going back to point No. 2, that value proposition isn't likely to work for the average online student. A successful online program requires a college or university to offer flexible services that meet the needs of students on an asynchronous, 24/7 basis, as well as a more dynamic presentation that fits the medium.
"If a school is not able to adapt and provide those services, then it will be very, very difficult for them to be able to compete and remain competitive," says Hitchcock.
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