More and more colleges and universities offering online and hybrid degree programs, and your institution’s offerings need to stand out. In designing a plan to promote your own online degree programs, how can you make sure you’re reaching prospective students with the right message?
(OLC) Board and chair of the OLC Award Committee for Outstanding Online Teaching and Leadership. With 30 years of higher education experience, Hartman’s online learning experience comes as a faculty member teaching face-to-face and online, in addition to writing several books on online degrees and online learning.
Hartman also has more than nine years of experience with Drexel eLearning, Inc. as the academic director, senior vice president of marketing and business development and is the former president of the program at Drexel University. These days he is working as a consultant helping colleges and universities grow their online programs.
Immersed in this area, Hartman is witnessing firsthand how today’s learning institutions are creating or evolving their own online learning programs. In our conversation with Hartman (condensed and edited for clarity), he discusses what today’s students are seeking in an online learning experience and how institutions can distinguish their programs in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
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What are the most significant challenges facing online college degree marketers today?
There are three challenges and the first is competition. It seems everyone and their brother and sister is putting something online, whether it be full degrees or certificates or just curriculum. There are just a lot more schools, particularly public institutions, starting online degree programs.
The second is cost. Institutions are lowering their costs in order to compete. So colleges and some of the state universities with lower costs structure and tuition [are creating] a balance sheet problem for a lot of colleges that heretofore have been charging a premium for their online courses or courses in general.
The third and probably the most important challenge is differentiation. In other words, how can your online program be differentiated based not just on price. More specifically, how is it better than, and different from, institutions that are similarly priced. That’s a tough nut to crack for a lot of institutions because they’ve been focused on convenience as a benefit and, they’re all convenient. A heavy emphasis on convenience needs to change. That’s old.
What have you seen as the best example of marketing online degree programs?
Drexel was one of the earlier movers. What sets them apart is that we had a two track strategic approach: a direct to consumer approach using traditional marketing, as well as internet marketing. But we pivoted early on to have a second strategic approach, and that was through our business development or through channels.
When I left there we had established over 400 corporate partnerships with hospital systems, corporations, and school districts because we found the costs of marketing — or acquisition costs for marketing online degree programs using the internet — was rising at a significantly higher rate than what we could achieve in our acquisition costs.
We had people working directly with HR officials and in exchange for them giving us access to their employees to market our programs, we gave them a discount on the tuition we charged. The greater the access, the greater the discount. And now you’re going to see that becoming more commonplace, because colleges can’t really raise their tuition.
Who are these programs marketing to?
Remember that online degree programs today are still an adult learner game. It’s not mostly 18- or 19-year-olds who are fully learning online. Although some programs have tried that and are failing miserably.
Adults are very price-conscious and time-conscious, so that leads into the second best example: colleges that offer a more blended approach. That first wave of adult learners 15 years ago — many of whom went to the for-profit schools because they were the only ones that had online degree programs, such as the University of Phoenix — were simply and solely interested in the convenience. Colleges are [realizing] adult learners have a preference for a blended experience and some creative learner options are taking market share from other colleges.
This new wave of adult learner would like the option of having some form of a residential experience. It may be for a week during the summer. It might be one or two times a semester. Adult learners do not want to be locked to the campus, or to come in one or two nights a week, but they do want the opportunities to meet their fellow students and meet other professors in ways that are more typical than full learning online.
Thirdly, an example of the colleges that are doing well are those that are more generous with their credit for prior learning. Colleges tend to be, and rightfully so, cautious and protective of academic credits. But in reality, many of these adults have demonstrated competencies in areas and have taken courses, in many cases longer ago than colleges accept credits for. Those colleges that have more flexibility are tending to attract more students.
The colleges doing this are the ones just getting into the online world. It’s perhaps easier to convince the faculty member who may be be a bit apprehensive about teaching online, who feel some of the knowledge and skills can’t be traditionally taught online. It gives them an opportunity to say, okay, here’s what we’re going to do online and here’s what we’ll concede to do one week or one weekend out of the semester.
What do you feel is the current trend in marketing online degree programs?
Non-profit institutions are gaining a tremendous market share given the melt coming from the for-profit sector.
You’re seeing other trends such as institutions experimenting with adaptive learning and competency-based learning and you’re seeing more and more colleges paying increased attention to affordability. For example, programs use exclusively free resources — such as open source textbooks and other materials — to try and make their program more affordable than their competitors.
Related reading: Competency Based Education: Part of a Bigger Picture
Mary Beth Maslowski is a freelance writer and editor specializing in business and education and is the Marketing Content Writer at LIM College in Manhattan.