The Higher Ed Marketer’s Handbook to Online Learners

By Mike StaffordAugust 1, 2017

Higher education is now accessible to a broader student base. There are more online learning platforms than ever before. And students of all kinds — more than six million students, in fact — are embracing new distance learning opportunities. According to a report from Pearson, online enrollment added 226,375 distance education students in 2015. This was up 3.9 percent from the previous two years.

Not only is it a major student audience, but a growing one. And there’s still so much to learn about this group. It’s important for marketers to become familiar with this growing student population’s unique traits and Higher Ed needs.

Online Enrollment by the Numbers
The Pearson report also revealed that 30 percent of postsecondary students take at least one online course. That 30 percent is divided just about equally between exclusively online learners and those who take some courses in person. Of the students taking courses exclusively online, 55 percent live in the same state as their institution, while less than half (42 percent) are enrolled out-of-state.                                                    

The number of distance learners is even greater in the graduate student population, with 34 percent enrolled at least partially online. In fact, graduate students are twice as likely as undergraduates to opt exclusively for online learning.                                                                                                                     

How to Target the Prospective Online Learner
Many schools are vying for the attention of online learners. And these unique students require a number of touch points before making a final decision. In 2017, 52 percent of prospective students requested information from three or more schools. That’s up from 29 percent in 2016.

In order to remain competitive, it’s clear that online degree programs must stand out. There are a few ways higher education marketers can accomplish this: 

  • Emphasize Career Services: 77 percent of distance learners utilize their institutions’ career services. Such services and respective benefits should be highlighted and not buried within lengthy text or hard-to-follow website matrices.
  • Strengthen Mobile Strategy: 81 percent of distance education students search for their desired degree program using mobile. In response, a school’s mobile marketing presence must be strong. This means websites, marketing materials, online portals, and courses should all be mobile responsive. 
  • Go Beyond Hyperlocal Marketing: One of the most attractive benefits of online degrees? The ability for students to attend their school-of-choice beyond geographic limits. Schools can embrace this by analyzing data and determining top markets beyond the local community. This data can be used to drive SEO, PPC and other paid-advertising decisions.
  • Reduce Student Risk: 59 percent of online learners said, in retrospect, their decision would have been influenced by factors they were unaware of from the start. It’s important for marketing partners and enrollment advisors to have and provide student with all the key details – especially underscoring total tuition and all fees.
  • Provide Proper Engagement: More than half of distance learners indicated that interaction is lacking. From marketing partners to school advisors, it’s important to provide proper contact and engagement from the get-go.

Online Learning Supports Student Outcomes 
trong student outcomes is a common mission within the industry, and online degree programs certainly support this mission. For one, it improves access to higher education. Students can enroll in programs irrespective of location, transportation and other factors that may have previously limited one’s ability to pursue a degree. And secondly, online degree programs support non-traditional degree paths. With accommodating schedules, rolling admissions and more, there’s unfettered flexibility. What’s more, distance programs often allow students to graduate faster and with more current and desirable skillsets. This can place some online students at an advantage for job opportunities post-graduation.

The Changing Student Population
Successful marketers will have a deep understanding of what drives distance learners. It’s about so much more than just staying ahead of changing student trends. Marketers play an important role in driving better student outcomes, and this kind of knowledge ensures that students will be best matched to the right schools and online degree programs. 

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