It’s one of the main appeals of distance learning — online programs are flexible enough for students to complete their coursework anytime, anywhere. And that’s exactly why online education has been so popular with adult and nontraditional learners.
In fact, about six million students are distance learners in the US, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And another three million take part in at least one online course throughout the span of their program.
To meet the demands of distance learners, more and more institutions have expanded their academic offerings to include online programs. Distance learning not only makes higher education more accessible to students with busy schedules. It also expands their options — national online programs are open to students residing anywhere in the U.S.
This begs the question: Is your college considered “national” just because you offer online programs? Join us as we dive deeper to determine the answer.
When academic institutions begin offering online learning options, it often leads them to consider if they need to adopt a national marketing strategy. After all, if their courses are accessible nationwide, they should start targeting students nationwide, right? This isn’t necessarily the case.
“The appeal is that if colleges are online, they will be able to broaden their reach to students anywhere in the world,” explains Amber Arnseth, associate director of marketing strategy at Collegis Education. “In reality, regional schools that offer online programs typically draw students from within a 50 mile radius of a campus location.”
Case in point: Online programs — though offered everywhere — still tend to draw students from closer to home than one might imagine.
So what does it take for a school to establish a national footprint? To better understand the requirements, the experts on our Collegis Academic Solutions team identified and analyzed top institutions with thriving national programs.
Establishing a strong national footprint
There are a number of institutions that have successfully built up a strong national presence. These schools generally see strong growth trends and are top-conferring online institutions offering an array of undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as certificates and specializations.
Our team recognized the following institutions as leaders in national education, based on strong and growing conferrals over the last 5 years:
- Arizona State University
- Grand Canyon University
- Liberty University
- Purdue University – Global
- Penn State University – World Campus
- Southern New Hampshire University
- University of Maryland – Global Campus
- Western Governors University
After identifying this group of institutions, we took a closer look at their online program portfolios to pull out any notable themes. Keep reading to discover what we uncovered.
Building a portfolio of online offerings
So just how many programs does an institution need to offer in order to be considered amongst the top contenders? And what types of programs should be included in these portfolios? The answers may surprise you.
After analyzing the leading institutions we listed above based on their portfolios and their programs, a few key insights rose to the surface:
- More programs are not always necessary to be competitive. In fact, a wide range of programs was found across the providers we reviewed, spanning from 59 to 467 total.
- The ratio of program offerings is 62% graduate-level and 38% undergraduate-level.
- The most successful schools anchored their portfolios with core programs — most commonly business and psychology/social sciences. However, across the board the national leaders had diverse portfolios that spanned every major degree field.
Programmatic breakdown of leading national schools
Our examination also led us to another revelation: The most successful national institutions are designed for breadth, sometimes adding additional depth in a particular program family.
- Breadth — A majority of the school’s programs fall across core education areas that are aligned to career outcomes (business, education, healthcare, science, technology).
- Depth — An emphasis in a particular subject area.
While all analyzed schools exhibited significant breadth of core program fields, some made a strategic decision to offer more “depth” — or a concentrated investment — in a specific area of study.
For example, Western Governor’s University has a higher percentage of education programs in their portfolio, which suggests a stronger emphasis in that area of study. Southern New Hampshire University, on the other hand, has a portfolio that leans more heavily on business programs.
Competing at the national level
Despite the misconception, it takes more than an online program for an academic institution to compete at the national level. In fact, online programs are growing increasingly local. More and more students are choosing to enroll in online programs close to home.
Although students don’t need to attend classes on campus, it’s still reassuring to know there’s a campus nearby. Another appealing factor for students is that local schools have greater visibility among employers and others in the community.
So if an online program isn’t enough to compete nationally, then what does it take? For starters, schools need to take into consideration the unique needs of adult learners — and their desire for career growth.
“Schools need to address the needs of the adult learner as a consumer,” Arnseth advises. “Career relevancy is top priority. Students want to go back to school to increase their career prospects. They want to be assured of improved employment outcomes.”
Employability is huge — and so is the flexibility needed to attend school without putting their career on hold.
Arnseth explains that online programs give students more control to set their schedule and priorities around other life obligations. “It makes earning that degree feel more attainable for busy working adults,” she explains. “They don’t want to sacrifice their current job while they work to advance their education. They are making a sophisticated decision and are looking for assurances that the investment of time and money will be worth it and lead to more and better career opportunities.”
Additionally, schools need to consider key strategies to ensure sufficient investment and resources are allocated for a long-term plan. For the program portfolio, schools need to analyze the mix of programs offered and how they align with what the adult learner is seeking.
Operating efficiencies also need to be optimized. A streamlined process from inquiry to application and support after enrollment all help to retain the student, and thus improve the bottom line. This can also lead to higher graduation rates and better career outcomes, which is what students are seeking.
Beyond online offerings
As you can see, an online program is only part of the equation for establishing an institution’s national footprint. It’s also about providing students with programs that align with employment prospects.
Schools need to look inward in order to examine their operating efficiencies and brand identity, as well as programmatic offerings. Now more than ever, brand strength and awareness are critical to capturing larger audiences.
Once these are addressed, only then can a college consider marketing strategies to compete at the national level.
Looking to unlock more insights on programmatic trends in higher education? Download your complimentary copy of our Higher Ed Programmatic Market Analysis, in which we glean insights on student preferences, growth opportunities, regional differences, and competitive dynamics in today’s higher education climate.