The Rise and Challenges of Online University Recruitment

The Rise of Online Programs in Higher Education

While enrollment in post-secondary education is declining overall, the number of students taking courses online is growing. In 2017, approximately 1 in 6 students exclusively enrolled online. From 2016 to 2017, the number of students taking some online courses grew by 6.4% while the number of students enrolled exclusively online grew by 4.2%.

Several factors are attributing to the increase of online degrees. Firstly, the stigma behind pursuing an online degree versus a traditional on-campus degree is diminishing. Many employers are not troubled by an online degree, as long as the online educational institution is accredited. Additionally, an online degree is a strong indication of strong time management skills.

Secondly, there are many benefits of an online degree for a student. It is usually cost-effective, as you do not have to pay for campus housing, commuting costs and many online programs have comparatively lower tuition rates. Students can choose from a variety of programs that may not otherwise be available close to them. And lastly, an online program is very accommodating towards any schedule so students can often continue working if they need to.

Marketing to the Online Student

As the demand for online education grows, the market is getting increasingly competitive. There are just a few organizations that hold the largest portion of the market share. With thousands of online institutions out there, the top 100 organizations account for 47% of total online admissions (up from 43% in 2016). The 10 largest institutions, which include the University of Phoenix and Southern New Hampshire, claim 1 in 5 students who enroll online.

An online institution truly has potential target customers across the entire nation. Being several states away draws no barriers that a traditional school would impose, such as relocation costs or leaving family behind. However, as there are so many institutions to choose from, it is only the largest organizations that are seeing high volume growth in their enrollment numbers. Most people are comfortable receiving an online education, but they want to do it from a well-known and well-branded institution.

Notably, 75% of online students enroll with an institution that is within 100 miles of their home.This is because, while enrolled online, students will still occasionally go to a campus to receive support and resources. This has become such a popular trend that several online education institutions are acquiring a physical location or expanding to multiple physical locations. Similar to retail and financial services, online education is finding a need to have a traditional brick-and-motor aspect to their online business model.

Digital marketing campaigns are essential for online universities. Many of the online programs offered are relatively new, so students may not be aware of the options that are out there for them. Paid campaigns and social media advertising are usually successful marketing tactics as the average student looking to enroll is young and digitally savvy.

The Challenges of Student Recruitment for Online Universities

There are some unique challenges for online universities when it comes to admission recruitment. The most important is convincing students that they will receive a high-quality education that will set them up for success in their careers. In a study asking what concerns students had in choosing an online education versus a traditional education, the highest concern (23%) was the "quality of instruction and academic support." One way educational institutes can overcome this concern is by posting the hiring rates of recent graduates.

When it comes to researching an online university, students surveyed stated that their top method (23%) was to read reviews online about the university. Students trust other students, and they will go looking online for verification that the school and program are up to their standards. Online education institutions need to ensure that they have a solid online presence. Their website should be user-friendly, modern and should direct potential students to positive reviews.

As the online education market is saturated and competitive, each institution needs to prove itself. Online education institutions should identify what makes their programs better and unique when compared to its competition.

When students are considering a potential traditional school, they often go onto campus to speak to a school administrator to answer questions. An online educational institution needs to provide this just as much. Just because a student is choosing to take the online educational route, does not mean they do not have questions. Online educational institutions should hold reoccurring, in-person information sessions on programs. Or, can offer a support phone number and email that is accessible during regular business hours.

Traditional schools will often help a student understand the full costs of their program, and explain how they can apply for federal financial assistance. In 2016 and 2017, surveyed students stated that their top two challenges for choosing an online program were "estimating actual costs such as tuition and books" and "applying for financial aid and identifying sufficient funding sources." Online educational institutions should help students overcome these hurdles by posting all relevant information on their site and offering a point of contact for further questions.

For traditional universities and colleges, recruiting international students are a huge focus. In 2017 to 2018, while the average college student was paying $10,000 for tuition, an international student in the US was paying $25,000. International students pay two to three times more in tuition and bring in large volumes of revenue to any educational institution. While it may be more difficult to recruit international students to an online university, it's not impossible. Many international students choose to study abroad for the cultural experience of living elsewhere, but that is not always the case. An online education institute with a strong brand and reputation can bring in international student interest.

The Online Student is Changing

An online student can be anyone. Approximately 34% of online educational institutions are seeing an increase in young students (ages 18-25). It is important not to forget high school students when reviewing recruitment efforts. Online education may be different than traditional education in a lot of ways, but students often have the same questions and concerns no matter what route they are choosing. Addressing these concerns can be the difference between the student considering an online organization, to them enrolling.

Program information should be detailed and include what makes the program unique. Students should be able to access help, when needed, for questions surrounding financial aid, enrollment, transfer credits, and more. And, most importantly, monitoring the online reviews for an online education institution is key. Positive reviews can be the deciding factor for a student to choose one online university over its competitor.