The Three-Legged Stool of Online Program Success
Data & Trends
Marketing & Student Recruitment

The Three-Legged Stool of Online Program Success

04/21/15   |  
Lori Turec
For years, buzz around online education has permeated the higher education space. The “growth in online education” has been a popular headline throughout the years. Now, however, we have reached a time when supply is outpacing demand.
While online programs increased by 31.48 percent during the 2012-2013 school year, online program enrollments were up only 6.67 percent. There are three areas that matter most for online program success: the school’s brand, program differentiators, and the investment of student time and money.

1. Brand

What does it mean for a school to have a good brand? Who defines your brand? What can you control about it?
It may be hard to accept, but your brand is based in large part on what students and employers value in a school and how they perceive that you can meet their needs. It’s important to do an honest, timely assessment of how you stack up against your peers. If rankings matter to your students, do you have a good story to tell? If placement rates are important, what relationships with key employers are you able to leverage? Do your students respect that you have highly acclaimed faculty or do they just want to know that they will get a job after graduation?
Your brand is dynamic; a good brand today can change tomorrow. Are you current or out-of-date? You must stay current on how you are being perceived through research, social media monitoring, surveys and interviews.
Geography plays a role, too. Perhaps you are respected regionally but not known nationally. What opportunities do you have to expand your brand and build awareness outside of your traditional center of influence? Another important component is thinking beyond the desktop. How do your website and other marketing materials look on a mobile device or tablet? If you don’t meet your students where they are in a way that matters to them, what does this say about the experience they might have as a student?
It’s vital to spend time understanding and improving your brand to your target students. Serious students narrow the list of prospective schools to less than half a dozen very quickly. A strong brand gets your school in the consideration set.

2. Student Investment

Why do adults go back to school to either complete a degree or get their next degree? For the most part, the answer is because they want to enhance or change their career. Adult learners tend to have other obligations competing with school: work, family, community, etc. They want a good school where they will get a good education; yet, they want to finish quickly and consider what it will cost.
What can you do to make sure you are competitive? First, make sure you truly understand what schools you actually are competing with for online adult learners. This list may not look the same as it does for your on-ground students. Talk to your registrar and confirm where your students are transferring from and transferring to. You may see schools on that list that surprise you. Once you know who your competitors are, you need to compare your program to theirs. Here are some ideas for comparison:
  • Total tuition (not just credit hour)
  • Scholarship and financial aid
  • Number of entry points
  • Time to complete the program
  • Is the degree 100 percent online or is there a residency or other on-ground requirement?
  • How much support do you provide for their academic success as adult learners?
  • How do you help with placement?
  • Once you know where you have a competitive advantage, highlight it. Prospective students scan marketing material more than they actually read it. Don’t bury a competitive tuition and time to graduate in long narrative paragraphs. If you have a good story to tell, make sure you share it!

3. Program Differentiators

The number of prospective students who are searching for online degrees is growing, but the way they are searching for these degrees is changing in a way that is very interesting. Programmatic searches are on the rise. This makes sense. Adult learners are searching for specific programs because they know these programs fulfill their motivation to change or enhance their careers. So, it’s not enough to have a good brand and a competitive tuition. You have to think about your programs, too.
As you do your research, it is critical to understand what makes your program truly special and valuable. Sometimes faculty members know the answers to this, but sometimes they are humble or unsure. It’s up to you to find out what you are doing that is important to your prospective students and feature it in your marketing and admissions materials.
For example, what specific skills, knowledge and abilities that employers demand will students gain as a result of taking your program? What experiences will they have that allow them to grow professionally? Why will completing this program set them up for success? Concentrations are often a great opportunity. If there is nothing special about the program now, how can it be added?
Your marketing must speak to your program attributes and your admissions team needs to continue that conversation. Even the smallest details can matter when it comes to differentiating your programs. For example, video is a key tool to building relationships with students. Consider including a simple one-minute video of an instructor letting students know what they will be learning and why that is important. Simple videos like this have been shown to increase engagement and retention.
Another opportunity to differentiate your program is to feature online portfolios of their work to show what students produce in courses included in the program. Of course, these student portfolios don’t just differentiate your program, they help differentiate your students!
Make sure you’re talking about your programs’ attributes and uniqueness. Keep the conversation going. Leverage your content marketing efforts to share how students and graduates are benefitting from their work in the program. The more specific you can be, the better. For example, “My instructor was an executive at a hospital and connected me with professionals in the industry.”
There are many online courses today that are languishing with too few students. If this feels like a problem you are having, take a look at your brand, student investment and program differentiators to see how you can turn your situation around. You do not have to do this alone. Working with a partner who is experienced and objective allows for honest feedback and valuable benchmarks. 
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