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Many higher education institutions are facing issues that include projected enrollment shortages, funding reductions, and questions of long-term viability. One area which is often neglected is the potential for enrollment growth strategies existing outside traditional, in-person classrooms. It is beneficial for colleges and universities to explore their expansion of hybrid and fully online coursework in order to boost enrollment.

These markets don’t always have to be completely new demographics for enrollment planning, either. As InsideHigherEd notes, “the number of high school juniors and seniors planning to attend fully online colleges has more than doubled since before the pandemic [per a 2022 report].”

As an organization, Class believes there is a transformation in higher education that is beginning. One that is more learner-centric, focuses on quality and equity between in-person and online learner experiences, and one that values connection and community. With this belief as a backdrop, there is an opportunity to explore enrollment.

Class recently convened a panel of industry experts to discuss online programming and efforts to boost enrollment. With their insights as the guide, let’s explore enrollment growth strategies around online programming, articulate the impact of those programs on admissions trends, and identify best practices around online education.

New enrollment growth strategies

New enrollment growth strategies around online programming should factor in two key reminders: Be strategic and be student-centered.

Be strategic

As Jennifer Brock, Vice President of Online Education Services for Academy of Art University, points out, institutions shouldn’t just offer more courses to boost enrollment, but, instead be “very deliberate about the courses that you offer.”

Sarah Dysart, Ph. D., Senior Director of Online Learning at the University of Michigan, adds that the emphasis should also be placed on the quality of the educational experience, not just the modality.

Paul Huckett, Assistant Dean of Learning Design and Innovation at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, echoes Dysart’s feedback, encouraging institutions to not think of online programming as its own separate entity. Instead, Huckett suggests, consider how it integrates with other modalities and your institution’s overall strategy.

Be student-centered

In addition to being deliberate in rolling out an online programming methodology for college enrollment strategies, the panel also reinforced that the student experience, as well as their academic outcomes, must be at the heart of the process.

Sara Carter, M.Ed., Director of Instructional Design & Technology for Delaware Technical Community College, takes it a step further, imploring institutions to remain conscious of the uniqueness of each learner—as well as the faculty teaching them—throughout the process.

Impact of online programs on admissions trends

The impact of online programs on admissions trends is abundantly clear. According to BestColleges, “75% of undergraduate students took at least one course online” in Fall 2020. Not only is online programming affecting higher education enrollment decisions, it’s also broadening the demographics of who can access a degree.

By his own estimation, Michael Matthews, Vice President of Technology and Innovation & CIO for Oral Roberts University, identifies 39 million Americans who have not completed a post-high school degree program. By offering more flexibility and sensible academic offerings, Matthews sees an opportunity to resolve this issue. Online programming, a standout among college enrollment strategies, can help better serve this population with increased agility and adherence to regular and substantive interaction (RSI) standards.

A report by HolonIQ found that online degrees are one of the fastest-growing segments of global higher education. That same report projected online programming—which saw a market size of $20 billion in 2019—to reach a market size of $74 billion by 2025. That level of projected growth should suggest a further look from higher education enrollment.

Using best practices for online programming

Using best practices for online programming is essential in not only constructing a viable program, but maintaining and growing it effectively. Our panel explored a few key best practices around online programming:

Programming should build upon itself

In order to boost enrollment and buck admissions trends, programming should build upon itself. Dysart went through this very process while the University of Michigan designed and implemented its own online programming for enrollment planning.

Initially starting with massive open online courses (MOOCs), Dysart and the institution experimented to see how qualified faculty could use the freedom of this modality to innovate and provide enrichment to their courses. This spurred further exploration into college enrollment strategies around online programming.

Dysart also encourages institutions to take a similarly rolling approach to introducing learners, moving toward non-credit initiatives first as these are low-risk and low-cost (or free) before scaling into full degree-bearing opportunities. This approach builds competency and motivation, setting learners—and faculty—up for success.

Course design should be strategic

Carter adds that strategic course design—grounded in universal design for online learning—also sets both learners and faculty up to succeed. By ensuring students are provided with choice, see themselves in the learning, have proper accessibility and inclusion, varied content, open educational resources, and more, Carter believes enhanced engagement is more likely to occur. She breaks it down succinctly, noting “when students know that you’ve thought about them, and you care about them, they’re going to have a more vested interest.” That increased involvement also directly impacts enrollment growth strategies.

Don’t leave your faculty to fend for themselves. Professional development opportunities should also be offered. Provide reference guides which serve as just-in-time resources, host a live intensive “course design institute” for faculty, develop micro-credential courses, set up collaborative course review processes, and invest the right amount of money in the appropriate technology yielding the greatest impact.

The community should feel connected

Huckett notes that students want a sense of community—even in online settings. His team even implemented a “connect to campus” initiative that brings online learners onto campus for a few days to meet faculty, listen in on program-relevant talks, and connect with classmates. This allows for engagement that is different from their online experience, even if just temporarily, and he hopes will positively impact the institution’s admissions trends. By providing engagement at the institutional-level, not just the course-level, interaction is cultivated beyond a learning management system (LMS).

Hassam Kashou, Ph.D., Dean of Online Learning, Technology, & Learning Resources at Long Beach City College, posits that the next step for institutions is how to build that same connectivity and sense of belonging that occurs on-campus into the experience for blended and online learners.

Discover more insights on how online programs can boost enrollment

Ready to discover more insights on how online programs can boost enrollment? Delve into the detail, specific examples, and collaborative discussion from our esteemed panel by checking out our “How Quality Online Learning Programs Drive Enrollment” webinar for yourself.

Want to see how a partnership with Class can elevate your online programming, enticing new students with next-level engagement features? Schedule a demo today!

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the VP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator at Wake County Public Schools.

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the VP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator at Wake County Public Schools.

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