Will student enrollment continue to drop? Are microcredentials becoming more popular than degree programs? Is a recession on the way–and if so, how might it affect college attendance?
Higher education faces a sea of questions about enrollment trends and how they might play out in the near future. But one thing is certain: Online education is here to stay. Just take a look at MBA programs, which last year saw online enrollment surpass residential enrollment for the first time ever.
As demand for virtual learning continues to grow, higher education institutions are setting ambitious online enrollment targets and working to grow their virtual programs. And university marketing departments are feeling the pressure to reach and attract more students amid increased competition and higher expectations from prospective students.
It’s no longer enough to offer online courses. Institutions need to prove value and demonstrate what sets their online programs apart from everyone else — or they will almost certainly be drowned out in the market.
Competition for online students is heating up
The pandemic fueled massive growth in online higher education — and virtual courses were far more popular even after schools returned to campus. More than 70% of U.S. students took one or more courses online in fall 2020, according to the National Center for Education. That’s compared to 37% before the pandemic.
The rapid expansion of online learning first started out of necessity, but quickly generated greater buy-in across the higher education ecosystem:
- More students became accustomed to the flexibility and accessibility of virtual courses, especially professionals already familiar with remote/hybrid work.
- Faculty came to appreciate online platforms as viable, even advantageous tools for instruction. And better integrated technology has opened the door for innovation, greater efficiency, and new drivers of student success.
- Administrators discovered the potential to diversify and expand their online offerings and bring a broader pool of students to their institution–enabling greater access to higher education.
- Employers are turning to online learning (both degree and non-degree programs) to upskill employees and fill skills gaps as they deal with the lingering effects of the labor shortage.
But institutions discovered the success of online learning programs comes with its own challenges. To start, the bar for online programs is far higher–students expect high-quality virtual options wherever they apply and more colleges than ever are meeting that demand. Institutions are no longer competing with other schools in their state or region, they are competing with schools across the country or even the entire world.
Not only are more schools offering online programs, but there are fewer students to choose from. Total postsecondary enrollment has dropped nearly 6% since 2019, according to the latest figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. And declining enrollment numbers have only added fuel to the fire as competition heats up.
What are you doing to out-market the competition?
The market for online learning has dramatically changed in just a few short years. In such a tight market, a smart marketing program makes all the difference. It’s essential to develop a strategy that differentiates your online offerings from others across the country.
As your institution looks to grow and mature your online program — and attract new students — consider how your marketing strategy helps answer the following questions.
- What’s your value proposition?
More students are second-guessing whether higher education is worth the cost after the past two years. The pandemic not only disrupted educational pathways, but led many potential students to opt for professional experience over virtual classes–and some are betting on higher earnings potential in routes that don’t lead to student debt.
With online programs, students have more options when it comes to tuition prices: Instead of going to a top-ranked program at a premium price, prospective students have access to more options virtually and may opt for a program with a lower cost. More than ever, schools need to justify why their tuition prices pay off–and that starts with understanding your unique value proposition.
Consider the value of your institution’s online programs beyond what students already know and appreciate about online programs (i.e., flexibility). Do you provide access to elite alumni? Do your programs offer specialized courses that fit a unique market need? Are you providing more career services resources and opportunities to students than just a job board? Show prospective students why it makes sense to pay for your online program and if you can’t and students are going elsewhere, it may be a sign that you need to reduce your tuition.
- What do you know about your competition?
With more choice comes greater rates of students who are accepted into a program and decline in favor of a competitor. Many institutions can assume who they’re competing with, but they don’t actually know. Directly-reported feedback from prospective students who decline is anecdotal and sparse. Nevertheless, there are ways to get this information, including databases your institution likely already has access to. Another approach is to examine who’s advertising alongside you. Which programs are appearing with yours in ads and what are they communicating? What are the benefits they’re presenting on their landing page? You can take the same approach in the organic channel. Which institutions are appearing near you or at the top of the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) for keywords relevant to your program? Click through to their sites and examine their messaging. It may provide opportunities to beef up your own approach.
- How can you connect with students in new ways?
Google is more crowded than ever–and the days of relying solely on search engine queries to drive interest in online programs are over. You need to find green space in the marketing landscape to pique the interest of prospective students and create a pipeline to your institution.
That could entail building a bigger presence on novel platforms like TikTok, investing more in user-generated content, or funneling more resources into personalized communication with every prospective student. But your efforts should also go beyond traditional digital marketing. Find ways to tap into your alumni network and turn them into advocates for your program. Ensure that every prospective student gets a white-glove level of service from your enrollment team. Most importantly, be willing to try new and emerging opportunities to connect with students, both in-person and online.
- How are you reacting to market needs?
Overall college enrollment may be dropping, but that doesn’t tell the full story. In fact, graduate programs are trending in the opposite direction, with graduate enrollment up 5% since 2019. And students are interested in options other than an undergraduate or graduate degree: Non-academic courses, trainings or certifications are now the most popular options for adults considering additional education.
Ask yourself whether your online courses match the current market. Do you have offerings for short-term upskilling and long-term education alike? Are programs adapting to fit the shifting skills needed in the remote/hybrid workforce?
In addition to internal discussions, talk with employers and students about the skills they need. Once you pinpoint market demands, you can position programs to fill in the gaps–and prospective students and employers will take note.
We don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future. There’s no way of telling how today’s enrollment, economic and educational trends will pan out in the months and years ahead. But no matter the direction these trends take, you need to position your online programs to adapt to the market and bring true value to students and employers.
Students know the value of online learning–they want to know the value and uniqueness of your online programs. With a program, position and marketing strategy that sets your institution apart from the rest, you can provide a definitive answer.
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