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Understanding the Online Student: 4 Takeaways from the Online College Students Report

By October 14, 2015 Best Practices No Comments

Every year, Learning House and Aslanian Market Research survey 1,500 past, present and potential fully online college students to understand who is studying online, and why. This research helps inform our best practices in terms of how online programs are developed, marketed, and executed. This year’s report is chock full of information about what really matters to online college students, but here are four key takeaways I think are critical for success.

Online Learning Is Highly Commoditized

Online learning isn’t new anymore, and most of the colleges and universities that offer these programs are similar. Generally speaking, the same programs are offered (business, nursing, and computer science are the most popular); the same learning management systems are used; and the same marketing messages of flexibility and convenience are standard across the industry.

To stand out, institutions need to focus on what sets them apart. I can’t tell you the number of times I talk to a prospective partner institution and they say “Well, our faculty really care about students.” This is wonderful! But when everyone says it, it becomes meaningless. That’s why I encourage colleges to do a lot of research and truly understand not only their brand, but that of their competitors. Institutions should consider whether they offer unique programs, have a better price point, have a more generous transfer policy or are more customizable than the other colleges in the area. Do not forget to consider what the for-profits are doing as well; often, they are on the forefront of offering students the services they want, since they are so recruitment driven.

Students Choose Programs, Not Institutions

More than 60 percent of online students chose the program they were interested in, then found an institution that met their needs. And if an institution doesn’t offer the desired program, many students reported not even considering that institution. Clearly, knowing what programs are popular is critical to increased enrollments.

While there are some perennial favorites, such as business and nursing, it’s also important to look at the region to understand what programs to offer. If a college’s area has a large hospital network, for example, the institution should consider offering a degree in healthcare administration. If manufacturing is a key industry, perhaps an MBA with a concentration in supply chain logistics makes sense. Since approximately half of all online students live within 50 miles of the institution they attend, understanding the region will be critical to offering the programs that are most relevant.

Emphasize Outcomes, Not Convenience

Almost every institution that offers online programs touts its convenience and flexibility. Students know online learning is flexible and convenient – it’s why they chose the modality. So how can your college stand out?

“Prospective students want very much to understand the career benefits of further education,” said Carol Aslanian, co-author of the report. “Colleges and universities would be wise to follow-up on their graduates to learn about their career advancement or change as a result of their education. Rising to new positions, increasing one’s wages, and working in fields that offer new opportunities are important as students select their institutions.”

We are seeing this at Learning House with our coding bootcamps. One of our most powerful messages is that we have a 95% job placement rate for graduates. Invest 12 weeks with us, we say, and you’ll most likely have a job at the end of your time. This is not something that should be the province of bootcamps alone; colleges, too, can offer this kind of outcome-based knowledge.

It’s not just jobs outcomes that can be shared with students. Universities also should consider tracking things like how much student debt graduates have, how quickly it’s paid off, and how many of their undergraduates go on to earn graduate degrees. As I recently discussed, this kind of information is critical to helping prospective students make informed decisions.

Affordability Is Important, But Not Everything

Every year, we ask students to select the three most important attributes when choosing an institution, and every year, reputation and cost are consistently at the top of the list. This year, for the first time, cost was the No. 1 most important attribute when choosing a college. Forty-four percent of undergraduates and 45 percent of graduate students reported selecting the least expensive option when choosing a program.

But not everyone can be the cheapest. What can a college do if its price point is middling, or even high?

“Colleges and universities need to identify, and articulate, the value they bring,” said Dr. David Clinefelter, co-author of the report and Chief Academic Officer of Learning House. “If they are not the least expensive, then what makes them stand out? Can an institution say that it has a pipeline to employers, or the best certification rates for certain professions? And once that value is determined, consider how it best can be conveyed to prospective students.”

This is where tracking outcomes again becomes important; if an institution can claim it has a high job placement rate, for example, then it can more easily prove the ROI of attending there and does not need to rely on price to be the determining factor in the student selection process.

No matter what the price point, however, it’s important to recognize that students want to know the cost of attending an institution. Too often, I see colleges and universities hiding the tuition information deep in the website, and presenting it in a way that is confusing. There is almost no way for students to understand the total cost of earning their degree, and rarely a good way for students to compare. While this might feel scary to some institutions, offering clear, direct information about costs is a great way to stand out right now, because so few colleges are doing this. I call this the CarMax principle; the car dealership might not be the cheapest, but it states the price of each vehicle upfront and doesn’t haggle. Many people choose to pay more for the sheer relief of not having to negotiate with a car salesman.

This is just a brief sampling of the takeaways from the Online College Students report. Others include the promise of blended programs; how to design policies for a diverse online student population; the increasing importance of tailoring offerings to students; how age no longer predicts behavior in online higher education; and more. Download the full report here.

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