Is scaling up your higher ed. institution’s online offerings the right move?

Online learning has been around for decades, where most higher ed. institutions offered continuing education or diploma programs — not full-fledged degree programs.

That was, of course, until the height of the pandemic, where earning a degree from mom and dad’s kitchen table became the only option. Traditional on-campus programs were forced to pivot entirely to online offerings faster than a symptomatic sneeze.

Now with the pandemic dust settling, online degree programs remain staunchly in the picture. As such, many higher ed. institutions are bolstering their online degree programs.

With the infrastructure already in place, it makes sense . . . or does it?

The truth is, investing in online degree programs in tandem with traditional on-campus offerings may not work for every institution. And even then, there’s the question of how to successfully brand and market that online arm. 

Should your higher ed. institution put more weight behind your online degree programs? You have to look at three things first. Let’s dive in.

Your higher ed. institution’s reach and its target students.

Students come to universities to earn a degree. But they also come craving independence, self discovery, and new relationships. They picture campus life, sunning on the quad, Friday night parties, and intramural sports. In short, they want the quintessential university experience.  

There are also the students who prefer a WiFi connection over an in-person one. The ones who seek a change in their career after ten years spent in the wrong field. The ones who need to complete their degree to better provide for their growing family. In short, these are the non-traditional students looking for enlightenment and convenience. 

Think about your core students: In which camp do they fall? Then, think about who you’re trying to target: the more traditional students, or working adults and other non-traditional students?

Next, think about the size and scope of your institution. 

If you’re a regional university or college, your prime objective is to serve people in your community, province, or state. Using distance learning to reach a broader population could be a smart strategy — as long as you don’t cannibalize yourself. 

Invest too heavily in a robust online program and you could open the door for an undesired economic impact on your on-campus experience. (Half-empty dorm rooms and lecture halls are a turnoff for any student touring your school.)

The outlook is more optimistic for bigger schools with widely respected and well-known reputations. You already have the name and credentials. Your established on-campus experience will still be a popular option. But the non-traditional students (coming from anywhere) who are looking for an online degree will consider you just by nature of your reputation — and because they can.  

Your higher ed.’s international student market.

There’s no doubt that bringing in students from other countries is a lucrative move. If that’s part of your institution’s recruitment strategy, you have more to consider if you also want to enhance your online programs. 

The main motivation for getting a higher education in North America is to explore new cultures and maybe even move the family there after graduation. This begs the question: Would a family from China or Korea, for example, pay three times the tuition a domestic family would to earn a degree remotely? Likely not. But even if they do, that means your pool of international students who do choose to study in-person will surely shrink.  

The willingness and ability of your faculty.

Your online students made the decision to go to your school for a reason — and attend online for a reason. They want a valuable learning experience and the convenience, comfort, or flexibility that online provides. Just because they’re connecting with you through WiFi doesn’t mean they don’t deserve an equally valuable experience. 

This means your online offering has to deliver, if not over-deliver. The competition for gaining online students is as fierce as it is in-person. Merely having an online degree program does not a competitive institution make. You must do it well

That said, providing an equally valuable virtual experience is up to your faculty. If they aren’t up to the challenge of making online courses just as indispensable as in-person, pump the breaks. 

Your faculty should be willing and able to design their classes for online degree programs so that online and in-person students alike get a great learning experience. Not only that, but you need to think about how you will connect students to their peers, providing avenues for social engagement in your school’s culture.

No matter what, you can’t cut corners.

5 reasons to use the same brand for traditional and online programs. 

As online degree programs have gained steam, there’s been a debate that we’re ready to settle: Should the traditional on-campus branding extend to the online arm? 

You’ve likely seen examples of faculty or departmental deviants who use a different logo or colour palette from the parent institution. 

This is counterproductive, as it sends the signal that there’s a disparity. There’s no difference when it comes on-campus and online programs, who should also follow the school’s brand standards. Here’s why this is important:

1. Visibility. Using the same branding increases the visibility and brand awareness of your online programs and traditional on-campus experience.

2. Messaging. An online-learning brand that mirrors your established brand says your online programs are just as high quality as those a student would get in person.

3. A seamless experience. For students transferring from online courses to on campus, using the same brand offers them a more consistent experience.

4. Unity and pride. Online students may not be able to attend the pep rally, but they should still feel pride for their school. Using the same brand conveys a sense of unity and cohesion between their professors, and in-person and fellow online cohorts. Additionally, it can help to promote a more positive perception of online learning among students and faculty.

5. Marketing leverage. You’ve already poured time and effort into your marketing strategy. Using the same brand will allow you to leverage your existing marketing efforts. 

In the competitive higher ed. landscape, you have to make the most of every advantage. And in the case of branding and marketing, using the same brand for both on campus and online degree programs is the smartest choice.

What’s best for the longevity of your higher ed. institution?

No doubt about it: Adding an online degree program is a tempting business opportunity. But just like any big investment, it takes careful consideration. 

Before you make any moves, figure out how investing in an online program would affect your right-fit students, right-fit donors, and faculty. Because online student population or not, that’s what it’s all about.

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