online programs

6 best practices for launching or growing your online programs

College and university leaders are seeking new approaches to increase enrollment in online programs-here are some keys to success.

Online learning is entering its next phase of maturity and growth. And although we’re clearly not at the point where online learning can be considered a “mature” industry, enough edtech companies have entered the market and enough online programs are being offered that higher education leaders are looking for strategies to effectively launch or grow online programs for this new era.

Specifically, deans, faculty members, and other college and university leaders are seeking new approaches to increase enrollment in online programs, help individuals attain degrees and improve their professional lives, and extend their reach. In addition, these institutional leaders are looking for better ways to differentiate, expand, and structure their online offerings.

With this in mind, we’ve come up with six key considerations that we believe can help serve as a guide to help your institution thrive in this next phase of online program growth:

1. Defining and Structuring Your Programs: The core of a college or university is creating new knowledge and disseminating that knowledge through teaching. With this in mind, the unique strengths of a school must be reflected in its online programs. By taking a hard look at your school’s academic strengths, you can identify programs, concentrations, and even key faculty members that can help your programs stand out in the market.

For example, Pearson Online Learning Services recently helped Bradley University with its online mental health counseling program. In working with the school, Pearson discovered that a Bradley faculty member had a strong online presence as a blogger for Psychology Today. As a result, that professor was showcased in the online offering, which has helped raise awareness and increase enrollment.

Another way your program’s definition and structure can improve your position in the market is by paying close attention to when the program is offered. For example, if a working professional wants to enroll in an online program, but you only offer a required course every two years, your schedule may not work for the student–and he or she may look elsewhere for a more convenient online program.

2. Setting Your Tuition and Fees: Students, as consumers of education, are increasingly interested in the cost of a degree. Tuition setting strategy begins with the consideration of each institution’s peers and competitors.

When taking a program online, Pearson works with an institution to establish the appropriate peer group of institutions as prospective students typically employ a nationwide consideration set when evaluating online programs. This benchmarking effort has the potential to indicate if an institution’s pricing structure may be sub-optimal.

At times these data suggest raising tuition pricing, which was the case with a well-regarded MBA program offered by a public university. Conversely, our analysis recently suggested that a nursing program offered by a private institution would optimally be priced lower, given the university’s ambition to grow on a national scale.

Both programs have been well-received by highly qualified students and their enrollment growth has out-paced expectations.

3. Establishing Appropriate Admissions Requirements: Universities and colleges are taking a fresh look at what indicators are the best predictors of student success in their programs. For many years, standardized tests were taken as a given in the application process, but as more and more people pursue second careers and seek degrees later in life, institutions are rethinking this approach.

As a result, more and more programs look at a multitude of factors and, in some cases, no longer require standardized test scores.

Building an admissions process that selectively waives test scores can mean more work for the admissions committee, but it can result in a class or cohort that is more diverse, more mature, and equally successful in the program. The university opens itself up to a broader set of qualified adult degree-seeking professionals who may otherwise be dissuaded by being asked to take a standardized test after many years outside of higher education.

(Next page: 3 more best practices for your online programs)

4. Targeted, Nuanced Marketing and Messaging: Our marketing strategy leverages data-driven insights to engage potential students: It takes a cross-functional team of marketing subject matter experts to build a competitive, well-differentiated program in the crowded online space.

Though it can be overwhelming to navigate, today’s learners are in control of their decision-making journey. They are empowered with endless resources to find information on their own, in a matter of seconds and across multiple devices.

Fact is, the vast majority of prospective students develop a shortlist before ever contacting anyone from the university. That means marketing must do the heavy lifting upfront to generate leads and enroll students by creating a frictionless experience for whatever information-gathering stage they are in.

5. Integrating Online Programs with Your Institution: To ensure the success of online programs, you must integrate these programs into your overall operating and financial structure. When done properly, your institution can share revenue back to the departments, and those departments can use that revenue to promote faculty hiring and overall growth.

Ultimately, you must create integrated, long-term arrangements that make online programs part of the overall mission – and business – of your school.

6. Focus on Employability: Through online learning, your institution has the opportunity to provide value-added expertise to today’s companies and their employees. Companies can use high-quality online programs to train their workforce, helping them attract and retain key talent. For this reason, some universities are partnering with companies to develop curriculum targeted at their specific industry and market.

For example, the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business has created an online MBA program that allows students to select from a variety of specializations to tailor their MBA to suit their employers’ needs and their career aspirations. And all students can take an “Active Learning Project” course, which allows them to address a significant challenge being faced by their employer in the classroom.

Teams of 4-5 MBA students are formed around each project, and they dedicate 14 weeks to applying their MBA and career skills to solving that problem for the employer. It’s a chance to solve messy real-world problems and create value for employers—sometimes garnering a nice promotion in the process!

As online programs continue to grow, it’s important that university leaders take advantage of innovative strategies to stay competitive and provide the best possible academic outcomes for their students. By embracing best practices in program design, pricing, admissions, marketing, and integration, your institution can thrive in the current market environment and be well positioned for the phases yet to come.

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