10 Tips for Attracting Online Students

By February 3, 2015 Best Practices No Comments

Higher education is at a crossroads. On the one hand, it is attracting more attention than ever, with recent initiatives proposed to make the first two years of community college free and institutions such as 55,000 Degrees working to increase the number of college graduates in specific regions. But those of us in the higher education space are also hearing a different story, one of flat (or declining) enrollments and increased competition.

Online education has long been considered the bright spot for growth in an otherwise bleak higher education landscape. But even that space is losing its allure. According to online education research firm Eduventures, growth in online education grew only 4% in 2014 – down from a high of 12% in 2012. More concerning is the lack of lead generation in the online space; according to a report from Gray Associates, online lead volume declined 26% in 2014.

Despite the slowing growth of students seeking an online degree, more schools than ever are offering online programs. While no definitive data exists as to the number of institutions that offer online programs, Eduventures estimates that between 2005 and 2012, the number of institutions offering an online degree nearly doubled (from 31% to 60%). And the perception of online learning as commonplace has also penetrated the market; according to “Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States,” almost 70% of institutions agreed to the statement that “online learning is critical to the long-term strategy of my institution.”

With that sanguine backdrop of softening demand and increased competition, how can your institution stand out? Here are 10 strategies you can use to maximize your marketing and enrollment funnel.


1. Select market-driven programs
With so many institutions offering online programs, it’s not enough to simply throw an MBA program up online and hope it’s successful. Instead, careful planning is required to choose the programs that will be most appealing to online students. Do your research: consider your competition, labor trends, your market and your reputation. Then, pick the programs that have the highest chance of success; start with the low-hanging fruit, and success will follow.

2. Spend appropriately across all channels
Online students find their institution and program differently than traditional students do, so it’s important to make use of a variety of media. Whether it’s traditional advertising (print, out of home, direct mail, PR, or mass media); online marketing (paid, organic or social media); or developing partnerships with community colleges, local businesses, or other area agencies, find the right mix to reach your targeted student. When determining spend, first determine your target cost per new student start. Then, use that number to understand how much to spend on attracting students. While it can be hard to increase your marketing budget, spending in a targeted, strategic way can help you attract the right leads who will convert into students.

3. Develop your online brand
Having a clear, definable brand is critical to standing out in a crowded marketplace. It’s not enough to rely on your on-ground reputation; instead, you must develop a specific online brand. That brand should complement your existing brand, but also be unique to your online experience.

Oftentimes, institutions worry that developing a specific online presence will somehow detract from their traditional focus, or draw students away from campus and online. In my experience, this is not the case. Because the online student typically is older and juggling work and family, institutions are actually appealing to two distinct audiences. Develop your online brand to speak specifically to the online student and create distinctive assets that support your brand identity: a website, landing pages, epackets and more.

You should also have an engaged and vibrant social media presence. Finally, make sure all of your assets are mobile friendly; with 58% of American adults owning a smartphone and 42% owning a tablet, more and more potential online students are doing their research on a mobile device.

4. Optimize through analysis 
I am a firm believer that data tells a story; it is up to us to find the right data and interpret it appropriately to understand what narrative we need to hear. For institutions to be effective at finding and converting online students, they need to understand what those students are doing within their enrollment funnel, and how much it costs to find, and convert, those leads. This is where analysis comes in. There are any number of metrics you can look at; I typically recommend looking at leads, contacted leads, applications, accepted students and starts, and then the ratios between those. How many of your leads are applying? How many applications start classes? How many of your leads end up starting?

In addition, you can also slice the data by where your leads are coming from: are these leads you are finding via paid search opportunities, or are they finding your institution more organically?

I recommend having a target cost per lead and cost per start, and then benchmarking against those. That will help you gauge your budget needs and understand the cost-effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

5. Lock arms with enterprise
Too often, academia and business consider each other as separate silos. I believe that instead, these two important segments of our society should be partners. By “locking arms,” each partner can help support the other. Colleges and universities can enroll more students, and businesses can experience a more educated workforce, helping to improve their bottom line and also increasing employee retention.

One of the most well-known examples, of course, is the partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University. Starbucks is offering full tuition reimbursement to all of its full- and part-time employees who wish to finish their bachelor’s degree and do so via the online program at Arizona State University. By launching this program, Starbucks is reducing turnover in a notoriously fickle workforce as well as increasing the potential for developing leaders from among the rank-and-file employees. ASU is finding a new pool of potential students, students who then become alumni and, potentially, cheerleaders for the brand, creating a ripple effect among a population ASU would not necessarily be able to target otherwise. And finally, the partnership also gave both Starbucks and ASU some positive press coverage and improved brand perception.

6. Find new pockets of opportunity
Because college has been such a mainstream part of American culture, it may feel like there are no new innovations to explore. Such a perception does a disservice to your institution. Finding new opportunities to offer programs students want, raise visibility of your brand or make tuition more affordable will all go a long way toward helping your programs stand out.

Recently, Bisk Education and the American Dental Association partnered to develop the ADA Executive Program in Dental Practice Management, using content from Mendoza College of Business Stayer Center for Executive Education. While Notre Dame is not known for its dental program, it does have a well-respected business reputation, and was able to parlay that into a specific program with significant upside (and at a minimal investment, since the content already existed and merely needed to be tweaked to be dental practice specific).

Another example is the launch of the Coding Bootcamp at Concordia University, St. Paul. This 12-week intensive program gives students the chance to learn a popular programming language, giving them skills that are immediately applicable to the job market. CSP has even partnered with recruiting firms to help graduates of the bootcamp to find employment quickly. And for those who wish to pursue their education, CSP also has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. The need for programmers is growing, and CSP is offering two ways to meet those needs.

It’s not just partnerships and programs that can make a difference; small things, such as offering regular events with speakers of interest to your targeted student population, can help keep your institution top of mind. Scholarships, too, even those that are not a significant monetary investment on your part, can help encourage students to consider your university.

Regardless of how you choose to approach this strategy, the key is to think creatively; don’t consider what has been done, but rather, what could be done. Then, do it.


All of the above strategies will help you develop and execute a successful marketing plan, but that’s only half the battle. Developing a streamlined enrollment process that provides stand-out service and assesses student needs (while exceeding expectations) also is key to success with online students.

7. Increase speed to contact
In my experience, the online student tends to want what they want, when they want it. If they are asking for information about your school, it’s critical that you get it to them fast. And if you don’t, another school, especially one of the for-profits, will. I recommend having a response procedure where a potential student is contacted via email or phone within minutes of requesting information. Yes, you heard me – minutes. Not days.

To make this process easier, develop a standard operating procedure for your team to work from. Have scripts available, and automate processes wherever possible.

As you are developing your SOP, consider the difference between stalking and supporting. It’s a fine line, but a critical one to walk. We typically strive for our contact agents to have eight communication attempts within 10 days. Then, to gauge success, monitor your contact rates over three days, 10 days, 30 days and 90 days.

8. Unofficially evaluate transfer credits
On average, students going back to school will have credits from three to four other institutions. While transferring credits is appealing because it will help those students finish faster, knowing what credits will transfer and how can be confusing. Having your team perform unofficial transfer credit evaluations will help these students understand how much credit they can bring with them, allowing them make a more informed decision about how long their desired program will take to complete. The sooner they know this, the sooner they can stop shopping other schools and pick yours! Make this process as simple and informative as possible, and do not require any fees. Most critically, make it clear that this is an unofficial evaluation. I recommend providing a disclaimer that spells out explicitely that this evaluation is unofficial.

9. Assist with transcript collection
Along with bringing transfer credits, students who have attended other institutions will have transcripts they need to gather. Although this is a simple task, it is one that provides a significant barrier to entry. For many students, the thought of contacting those institutions, navigating bureaucracy and potentially incurring a fee is enough to stop their enrollment process in its tracks. By assisting with transcript collection, you can overcome these hurdles.

Have the student sign a format that allows you to pay for and gather transcripts on their behalf. Then, simply have members of your team do the legwork for the student. If the student wants to gather the transcripts on his or her own, then make sure your team is following up every two weeks or so and offering help.

10. Assist in tuition planning
OK, so the potential student has found your college through engaging marketing, was contacted quickly, knows how many credits will transfer and your team is gathering transcripts… now what? Another hurdle is helping students understand the cost of their program, and the options available for payment. Offering tuition assistance can help. I recommend having tuition planners on staff who serve as liaisons between the admissions and the financial aid office. Not only are these planners extremely knowledgeable about the tuition costs and the financial aid options available, but if a student has any verification or C-code issues happen, the tuition planners can help reassure them and get them through the process. Tuition planners also can help students understand what needs to be paid before classes can even begin so students are not caught by surprise on the first day of class, delaying their start.

And finally… 

11. Assess student motivation and match them to the right program
For students to be successful, they need to have a “why.” Why are they going back to school? Is it for a better job? Personal satisfaction? To learn a specific skill? Once you help students know their why, they will be able to handle the “what” that is to come.

To assess motivation, make sure to ask questions, and really listen to the answers. It can be easy to start viewing students more as numbers on a spreadsheet than as people, so make sure you are treating each potential student as a person with a complicated story that you want to understand.

Then, once you understand their “why,” be honest. Help these potential students understand potential barriers (the time it takes to go to school online, how much it will cost, the technology they will need access to, etc.) and also how to overcome those barriers. Having these conversations ahead of time will help set this population up for success and help your institution fulfill its mission of educating those who want to learn.

With enrollments declining and online competition increasing, it can be hard to feel like your institution can successfully compete in the online space. But a thoughtful strategy based on best practices can help ensure that you are attracting potential students and helping them to enroll, giving those students the education they desire while supporting the fundamental purpose of your institution.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: tzipper@learninghouse.com