For the past eight years, undergraduate enrollment rates have decreased across the board. From spring 2018 to spring 2019 alone, the overall student enrollment rate dipped by 1.7 percent.
Rising tuition costs and the fear of being saddled with significant student loan debt are just a few major reasons for this decrease in college enrollment. Many students are worried about the return on investment in their education. Some even feel that higher education isn’t providing them with the skills necessary to become desirable applicants once they reach the workforce. In response to declining enrollment rates, many colleges and universities are evolving and introducing digital education programs to help increase student enrollment.
While education rates are decreasing overall, the number of students taking classes online is increasing rapidly. According to Julia Seaman of the Babson Survey Research Group, “the growth of distance enrollments has been relentless. They have gone up when the economy was expanding, when the economy was shrinking, when overall enrollments were growing, and now when overall enrollments are shrinking.”
There’s a good reason this trend is holding steady—digital education provides significant benefits for students, especially non-traditional students, who currently make up 74 percent of all American university attendees, according to some estimates. Whether they work full-time, have a family, or can’t get to campus for a formal class, online courses offer greater flexibility and convenience for non-traditional students pursuing a degree.
Online education isn’t just beneficial for students either, it also benefits colleges and universities. By evolving existing programs and offering more online courses, higher education institutions appeal to a larger population of potential attendees. Taking advantage of the growing trend of digital education helps institutions increase enrollment rates and become a more viable option for students from all walks of life.
Using Digital Education to Increase Student Enrollment
Online education took off gradually at first but has quickly gained popularity in recent years. The number of students taking at least one online class grew to 33.1 percent in 2017. In the same year, the proportion of students taking courses exclusively online grew to 15.4 percent. Even with overall enrollment rates on the decline, digital education programs continue to increase student enrollment.
Today, there are numerous options available to students looking to obtain a degree or certificate online. As of 2018, 98 percent of public colleges and universities offer some form of online courses. To meet the needs of current and future student populations, colleges and universities need to adapt to a model that incorporates digital education and the creation of new programs.
Using Online Program Management Organizations
One way for higher education institutions to expand their online course offerings is to partner with an OPM (online program management) organization. OPMs enable students to take courses online that were developed by colleges and universities. Even major corporations like Google and IBM are partnering with OPMs and creating online programs that can be used by students or professors in formal classroom settings. These courses help students to develop vital skills for the workforce at a lower cost compared to traditional schooling.
Institutions can also benefit from OPMs—these programs represent a lower-cost way to offer more courses online to their students, without making a major investment. To be effective, however, the courses offered need to line up with what students need. OPM markets thrive on consistency and uniformity. Many colleges and universities have their own priorities and approaches. The right OPM will work with your institution to understand and help you meet these needs.
Institutions don’t necessarily have to use OPMs for expanding their online offerings, but the value provided by programs like those offered by Caduceus can allow educators to more effectively meet the needs of students. Working with an OPM organization offers universities and academic institutions the support to do what they do best, while providing students with greater flexibility and accountability in independent learning.
The Online Learning Consortium has created a checklist for higher education institutions, enabling educators to check the quality of support provided to students. Using the checklist, you can ensure that you are providing your online students with the same high-quality education and resources that your on-campus students have access to.
Filling the Gaps with Online Education
Offering online courses enables you to fill gaps in your existing educational programs. You can develop programs that are designed to be completed entirely online, and online programs can be created to augment offerings already available on campus. Even for traditional students, a combination of digital and in-person education can help to keep classes engaging. You can also give students the ability to explore different career paths at their own pace, without interrupting their existing course schedules. Using digital education to offer more learning options helps higher learning institutions effectively increase student enrollment.
It’s not just offering more college courses online that can help to increase student enrollment, though. Many institutions are incorporating competency-based classes that can help students develop the skills they need to become effective members of the workforce. Incorporating courses that focus on practical skills directly applicable to certain jobs can make graduates of your university more desirable to potential employers, which can be an attractive prospect for potential as well as current students.
Digital Education Attracts Varying Student Demographics
College isn’t just for individuals fresh out of high school, and the traditional college setting just doesn’t work for everyone.
Some individuals looking to obtain a degree from a higher education institution work full-time or have a family to take care of. Some students are located too far from a college campus, and others may not have access to transportation even if they live in the local area. Older individuals, those with jobs, those with families, individuals with disabilities, and those from lower-income settings are seeking higher education as well.
For students facing additional difficulties and obligations, trying to sign up for and attend formal classes can be incredibly challenging, if not nearly impossible. This is where digital education comes in.
With digital education, you make your college or university more widely available to people in varying demographics. According to a survey conducted by Best Colleges, 16 percent of participating schools reported varying locations of students as a trend in online education. These schools were seeing an increase in student enrollment from distances too far from campus to drive, out of state, or even out of the country. Many of these schools saw also saw an increase in student enrollment from many of the local students enrolled in their online programs too, which demonstrated that students could attend campus but decided not to.
Of the schools participating in the study, several noted a wide array of different populations enrolling in increased numbers. Many individuals enrolling in online courses were students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and those who spoke English as a second language. By offering digital education, you may be able to increase student enrollment by appealing to a broader array of demographics.
There are many reasons why students might prefer digital education over on-campus classes, including:
Greater convenience and flexibility
Online education doesn’t operate on the same rigid schedule as formal college classes. Course materials are always available online, and students can complete courses and homework at their own pace around their own schedules. For those with full-time jobs or children, this flexibility enables them to balance existing responsibilities with pursuing their education.
A more comfortable environment
Not everyone is comfortable in a formal classroom setting. Disabilities, language barriers, and other concerns can keep students from being able to focus on the course material. With digital education, students can listen to lectures and complete assignments from home or other comfortable spaces. Some students report better concentration in an online setting.
Opportunities for more interaction
It might seem contradictory, but for some students, online education affords a greater opportunity to interact with professors and other students. In an online setting, these students may feel more comfortable participating in discussions and reaching out when they have questions or concerns.
Not every student has the ability to drive to a college campus, and nearby campuses might not offer the classes that students want or need to take. Whether your college or university is located in the next town over, 100 miles away, or on the other side of the country, online education keeps distance from being the reason why students don’t pursue higher education. Instead of having to find a way to get to campus, students can access lectures, coursework, and support from wherever they are.
In many cases, online courses offer a more affordable way to achieve a college degree or certificate. Students don’t have to worry about affording room and board or the cost of commuting. If your programs provide free access to online textbooks and other course materials, your students also don’t have to worry about these costs. Some students may still need to take out loans to achieve their degree, but lower costs for online education means lower student debt upon graduation.
The ability to finish a degree faster
There are many students taking traditional college courses who are supplementing their education with digital classes. Doing so gives these students the ability to complete their degrees more quickly than they would by simply taking traditional classes on campus.
Some employers work with colleges or universities to provide programs for employees. If your institution offers such programs, students can work to further their careers without having to attend lectures that might conflict with their work schedules.
Support for unique circumstances
Embracing online education allows you to provide for students that traditional programs might not be able to support, such as older students, students working full-time jobs, parents, and lower-income students. With more flexibility and greater options, your institution becomes more appealing to a wider array of students. Digital education enables you to provide options for students of varying demographics, increasing enrollment rates, and overall student success.
Providing Proper Support for Online Students Helps Programs Thrive
It’s not enough to just offer online courses though — if online students don’t have the necessary support, they are unlikely to succeed. All students, whether on-campus or online, need academic support and resources.
Students taking traditional courses on a college campus have access to several sources outside of the classroom, like study centers, libraries, and career centers. Students can access these services whenever they are on campus, but many colleges, particularly those just thinking about or newly launching digital education programs, don’t consider what services their online students might need. In an effort to provide digital education to students on and off-campus, virtual support often becomes an afterthought.
A lack of quality instruction and digital support are some of the biggest concerns that students have when it comes to digital education. According to the study by Best Colleges, 23 percent of students expressed this concern, and 17 percent expressed concerns about the lack of community and interaction with professors and other students. Without proper support services for students taking courses online, long-distance students and digital programs cannot thrive.
For digital programs to be successful, you need to provide students with the same support afforded to on-campus students. Just like the services offered to students taking courses on campus, the services available to online students should cover the entire course of the college experience. From the application process to graduation and beyond, these services are vital for student success.
The Online Learning Consortium’s checklist covers a number of key components necessary for the success of online education:
Support through the admissions process
Students going through the typical admissions process generally visit the campus for a tour and have the opportunity to speak to staff members regarding any questions or concerns they might have.
For students who can’t physically visit a campus, an online portal can be an invaluable resource. A portal that provides a virtual campus tour, course information, and place to find answers to questions about academics and admissions can give students a feel for your campus and all that you have to offer. AI chatbots can also be beneficial for helping prospective students navigate the campus virtually and providing answers to any concerns.
Access to academic advisors
When signing up for classes, on-campus students can speak to advisors in-person who can help them to select courses. Advisors can guide them through what classes are necessary to meet core requirements as well as what classes they’ll need to take to achieve their degrees.
Online students must have access to advisors, as well as enrollment tools, placement testing, and other essential services that can help provide guidance toward academic success.
For students, both on-campus and online, the library is a vital resource. While on-campus students can easily access the library for research, online students may not have the same ability. An online portal can give these students access to databases and library staff. This way, online students are afforded the same resources to look up necessary information and complete projects.
Online students need their digital resources to work smoothly to ensure that they can access lectures, complete assignments, and turn in work. Hiccups in the system can create serious problems and impede education. A help desk and IT services are essential to help digital education flourish.
Support for financial aid
Financial aid is a necessity for many students taking traditional courses on a college campus. FAFSA provides over 13 million students with financial assistance. Online students may need financial assistance as well. As part of their checklist, the Online Learning Consortium recommends providing online students with tools to learn about all of a school’s available options as well as access to financial aid advisors.
Career counseling services
Students taking courses online have access to services that can help to prepare them for the real world. To help online students prepare for the workforce, the same services should be available digitally. Online career assessments, assistance with resume writing, interview guidance, and job placement services can help online students achieve the same success after graduation that students on campus can achieve.
Other services recommended by the Online Learning Consortium for the success of digital education programs include:
- Orientation services
- Support for veterans transitioning into an educational environment
- Support for students with disabilities
- Graduate student support
The checklist allows colleges and universities the ability to assess the state of their current support for online students. You can find areas where you excel as well as where you can make improvements. By offering the same services to your online students that you provide for your on-campus students, you can improve the experience of all of your students.
Flourishing digital education programs don’t just stop with creating courses and posting them on an online portal. To truly be successful, you need to ensure that all of your students, both on-campus and online, are fully equipped with the tools they need to excel. Offering online resources to online students helps to retain existing ones and attract new ones.
Digital Education Benefits Students and Universities
Overall enrollment rates might be on the decline, but the percentage of students taking courses online is increasing. The upward trend in digital education offers colleges and universities an opportunity to provide students with more options that meet their unique needs. By expanding programs and offering courses online, you can appeal to more students and increase your enrollment rates into the future.