Remote Courses Do Not Make an Online College

By Todd J. Leach

Remote learning was a key component of college strategies for addressing the COVID-19 crisis across the country. More than 1,100 colleges went entirely remote by March 2020, according to the education consultancy Entangled Solutions. The College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College indicated that 44% of institutions had developed fully (or primarily) remote instruction by September 2020. This mass migration to remote learning also resulted in significant increases in technology spending.

While many colleges already supported online delivery, others migrated course content to remote platforms for the first time. According to Holin IQ, the last half of 2020 saw the second largest amount of spending on information technology of any half-year period of spending in higher education. This included a combination of asynchronous and synchronous technology, and based on the relatively small drop in enrollments that most institutions experienced as a result of going remote, it seems the investments succeeded in helping students maintain progress toward completion.

Converting the investments made to support remote learning into a new online revenue stream, however, is an entirely different proposition. It seems reasonable to assume that the number of institutions attempting to launch new fully online initiatives will grow drastically as a result of the vast investments made to support remote course migration in response to the pandemic. In fact, based on conversations with a number of higher education leaders, there seems to be a belief that those investments will be the foundation for a new revenue stream that will offset the demographic decline in numbers of traditional students. But I am predicting that the majority of attempts to grow revenues through online programs will not result in net increases. Rather than enhancing institutional strength, many of these attempts may result in draining strategic funds and detracting from an institution’s core mission.

It is not that the concept of expanding delivery to online is an inherently bad idea. In fact, the trend for professional graduate programs is a migration to online delivery and, for those institutions offering professional graduate programs, the migration to online may be necessary just to maintain market share. However, what it takes to go beyond merely keeping up with market shifts and achieve additive growth can be counterintuitive to traditional higher education norms and requires far more than technology investment.

No more “Field of Dreams”

The “Field of Dreams” approach that simply required an institution to make content and instruction available through a learning management platform is no longer enough in a market where competitors are spending tens-of-millions of dollars to build online brand identity. Those marketing investments go beyond the cost of ad placements and include the development of sophisticated strategies with a clear call to action and an easy means by which to take that action. Go onto the websites of any of the larger online colleges and you will encounter online chat boxes, even on the weekends or in the evening. That is not to say that there is no merit to pursuing a smaller or more targeted online initiative if you cannot afford a national marketing campaign. In fact, really no college can afford to ignore the migration of professional graduate programs to online formats, or the fact that online growth continues in spite of the downward demographic pressure on traditional enrollments. It is most important in this environment that an institution has a realistic understanding of what is required to be successful at either the national or regional level and have a plan to match the goal.

The report “Online College Students 2020: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences,” published by Wiley Education Services, indicates that 75% of online students choose institutions within 50 miles of their residence, and that number is up from 67% in the 2019 survey. This trend suggests that there are opportunities for local or regional strategies  that leverage an institutions local branding and that may not require the same critical mass needed to support a national presence. However, as with professional graduate enrollments, most of the revenues likely generated from more localized online enrollments are likely to serve more as replacement revenues than as an additive revenue stream that might be used to eliminate existing structural budget deficits.  Whether the intention is to be a local or national presence, marketing costs are only one facet of an online operation that requires investment.

A review of college admissions websites suggests that the traditional college admissions process still assumes candidates expect (and are willing) to traverse any number of barriers for the privilege of being considered for admission, and the traditional time horizon between a completed application and a decision by a college to accept a candidate or not can easily take weeks, if not months. However, the decision process for students seeking to pursue an online degree may, in some ways, be compared to that of a convenience good, and rather than assume applicants feel privileged to be considered for admission, an online institution may want to view it a privilege to receive the application.

Unless an institution has the luxury of an elite brand or highly specialized program, access needs to be as convenient as possible. It is not that the market does not value higher education more than its next movie selection; it is simply that this market has faced tremendous barriers that have already kept them away from, or pushed them out of, their pursuit of higher education. For those working double shifts or raising a family, the decision to pursue a degree does not come easily and it only takes the slightest of barriers to have them put it off again. The Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences report indicates that over half of online students are working fulltime.

Serving busy adults

The adult students that make up 80% of the online market (based on the Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences report) do not want to be told they must call between 9 and 5, when they are at their busiest. Extended hour calling is a minimum entry requirement for institutions that want to parlay their remote content into a share of the online market. Chat-enabled websites, proactive assistance with transcripts, and rapid review and follow-up can make the difference between someone committing to the pursuit of a degree and it continuing to simply be a distant dream.

If the first page of your online application is a list of everything a student will need before they begin the application process, then assume you are losing applicants. In fact, if the initial application has more than a first page, you will likely lose applicants. This is not to say that getting accepted into every online program should be easy, that the course requirements themselves should be easy. This is about the process and the process should not be a barrier that limits the potential applicant pool. Choosing the students that are best suited to the program is easier when you have students to choose from. Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc told Inside Higher Ed in 2019 that the university typically returns 98% of new lead calls in under three minutes. “Speed to lead” also needs to translate to fast turnaround of decisions.

Those institutions that are committed to parlaying their remote investments into building a new online revenue stream should expect to invest in both marketing and student support services, but the harder part of truly meeting the needs of the adult market may require cultural change within the institution.

Interactions with offices such as the bursar, registrar and financial aid all need to be different for adult online students. Expectations and communication are different for the adult students who make up the vast majority of online students. Taking a student centered-approach wherein the entire experience is assessed and modified from the lens of an adult student can challenge existing processes and decision-making. For example, requiring a student to meet with an advisor before registering for classes may be good support for traditional age students, but an annoyance for an adult student who might prefer self-help tools like curriculum maps, or may even prefer automated opt-out preregistration.

The core of any student’s college education ought to be the classroom experience, whether it is virtual or not. Here again, what worked for addressing remote learning during the pandemic may not translate into a competitive experience suited for fully online students. The synchronous technologies many institutions relied on during COVID-19 are generally not a good fit for a fully online market that wants the convenience of an asynchronous approach. There are also very few cost savings when delivering synchronously, and price is essential to online competitiveness (based on the Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences report, affordability was the most important factor for online students).

It is also worth noting that the majority of traditional students did not rate their remote courses as highly as their classroom-based courses. According to last year’s “Digital Promise Survey,” 40% of students expressed dissatisfaction with their remote classes compared with only 12% who expressed dissatisfaction prior to the switch to remote learning. If an institution’s primary market was less than enthused about their experience, is it going to captivate a fully online market?

In spite of the challenges to parlaying investments in remote learning into a new online revenue stream, those investments are not lost. For those institutions not ready for the additional investment and corresponding risk it takes to build a national or regional online initiative, the ability to provide the traditional student base with greater flexibility, and support increasingly innovative classroom experiences, will help better serve their existing population. For the few institutions that are willing to take the risks necessary to fully commit and invest in a national online strategy capable of generating a significant new revenue stream, those remote learning investments are at least a starting point. Before an institution begins down this road, however, it should first understand how an online strategy fits its mission, its ethos, and long-term strategic aspirations.

Launching an online effort solely in the belief that it is a silver bullet for addressing a budget crisis will just as likely accelerate that budget crisis. A college may not be able to ignore having some level of online strategy but those wanting to compete with the national providers need to be all in.

Todd J. Leach is chancellor emeritus of the University System of New Hampshire and former chair of NEBHE

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