We have been friends with RNL’s VP of research, Scott Jeffe, for a few years now. Recently, in an effort to better understand (and maybe influence) the marketing, recruiting and enrollment side of online education, we joined RNL’s advisory board.
One of the advantages of serving on the advisory board is the opportunity to get early looks at RNL research. A newly released report (which we recommend you check out) is the “2022 Online Student Recruitment Report: 10 Challenges and Solutions for Engaging Prospective Online Students.” We asked Scott to answer our questions about the findings of the report.
Q: We noted that this new report presents not only 10 challenges, but also what you call solutions. How did you go about this?
A: There are a lot of reports available today that talk about the challenges facing higher education. But I know that when I present data like this, the audience always wants to know what it means to them.
With this in mind, I gathered a group of my colleagues and asked them each to select one of the challenges and imagine that institutional stakeholders had just read it and asked them, “So what should I do about this?” That was the starting point for the solutions.
Q: You write in the report that online program expansion has become essential for institutional growth. Why is that?
A: We start the report here for a very intentional reason. There was a time when online would have been a nice to have rather than a must-have, but this is no longer the case. While the pandemic likely accelerated this, it was in the making long before. This first challenge presents data indicating that as far back as 2012, there has been no net year-over-year growth—at either the undergraduate or graduate levels—among students enrolled in only classroom courses.
All growth has come from either new students who enroll in all distance courses or one or more distance courses. In both cases, the all distance outpaces the one or more, so we must conclude that infusing some online courses into classroom programs will not be adequate, perhaps with the exception of the most prestigious—or most affordable—institutions.
Q: What was your most interesting finding?
A: We asked respondents about expected response times to an inquiry. In the aggregate, about one-quarter expect a response within minutes, another quarter within an hour or so and another 30 percent within one business day. Every time I present data like this to groups of enrollment leaders, I hear, “I wouldn’t want a response within minutes,” “I think that is creepy” or similar responses.
Well, now we know why: when we segmented this response data by five-year age blocks, upwards of 40 percent of respondents over age 45 indicated that they were fine with a response that took more than one business day. The message: we (those of us 45-plus who typically lead enrollment operations) are not the audience.
Q: How does meeting prospective student expectations feed into the success of institutions today?
A: We asked respondents two questions: How likely are you to enroll at the institution that admits you first? Upwards of 80 percent said that they are very likely or will definitely enroll at the first institution to admit them. But that is not all. We also asked them how likely they are to enroll at the institution that responds to their inquiry first.
More than half of respondents said they were likely to or definitely would. Given that the rise of (and acceptance of) online has provided students with more choices than ever before, meeting these types of expectations has a real impact on enrollment growth.
Q: Why do you suppose students put so much weight on this speed?
A: Today’s students generally—and online students in particular—really think of their higher education as another of the commodities that they purchase. They are thinking about cost more than ever, they are weighing cost versus outcomes (looking for career data on websites) in a way that looks awfully like ROI. Let’s also not forget that we are now serving two generations (millennials and Gen Z) who have grown up in a customized and instantaneous response world. They have these same expectations of their institutions.
So with these response-time questions, they are equating colleges and universities to everything else they do.
Example: the restaurant that doesn’t respond to their misplaced order on GrubHub will never be used again; the retailer who doesn’t make returning something easy will not be used again. They expect good customer service no matter what organization they are interacting with.
This new report will be a major centerpiece of the 22-session graduate and online track at RNL’s national conference in Washington, D.C., from July 14 to 16, at which we will also be presenting on “Six Post–COVID-19 Provocations.”
There is still time to register.