Online Learning
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The upheaval in higher ed is apparent. Is the growth of online learning the silver lining?

The final chapter on the pandemic’s effect upon higher education and particularly community colleges is yet to be written. Nonetheless, we are all keenly aware of its painful impact. Enrollment in community colleges has plummeted by 10% since last year. Declines are particularly sharp among men, first-time students and minorities, raising alarm bells nationally.

But behind the scenes, community colleges have transformed themselves in many ways. Schools worked hard to convert classes to an online learning format. Professors evolved their lessons and incorporated more visuals. New remote-only classes were developed. In many cases, Information Technology staff and programs labored to help as many students as possible.

All this work has paid off. As schools resume in-person classes, they are finding that students have absorbed an unexpected lesson–a new appreciation for online education.

Remote learning has real benefits!

The ability to learn from home and pace student life around family life or work has become a “new normal.” Students found that they could listen to lectures at their leisure, complete assignments, network with classmates, and complete exams all from home. Many who balance work and school found they could choose to study at a time of day when they were more productive, possibly listening to lectures during a commute and avoiding the stress of showing up to class on time after a long, hard day.

In other words, for some students more online classes have meant an increase in educational accessibility.

Not only that, but e-students have saved hard-earned money during the pandemic. Some saved on gas or transit fares, others on babysitting, and many found that online classes cost less. Some community colleges have begun accepting credits from free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). Students have found that these are a great way to complete remedial and foundational classes without incurring extra costs.

The bottom line is that online classes can be the silver lining for community colleges. There is great demand for online career training, but how well is your school known for it? Instead of losing many career-minded non-traditional students to for-profit schools, two-year public schools need to make more people aware of their up-to-date approach.

I doubt we will ever go back…”

Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts, says his school is adapting to this demand. “Pre-pandemic, 15 percent of our classes were online. I can’t imagine that ever again dropping to below one-third,” said Glenn. “I doubt we will ever go back to the exact mix that we had pre-pandemic.” He notes that Fall 2021 will offer 25 percent of classes in-person, with the option to open up more. But this means a whopping 75 percent will be online.

This pattern has been followed nationally, with the bulk of classes remaining online. San Diego Community College plans to offer 22% on-campus and hybrid, with 78% online.

But the competition is real. The combination of COVID with an economic downturn hit community colleges hard, said Stephanie Cellini, a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy, pointing out that, “In contrast, enrollment is up in for-profit and online colleges.”

Cellini concluded, however, that students will suffer. “The research repeatedly finds weaker student outcomes for these types of institutions relative to community colleges, and many students who enroll in them will be left with more debt than they can reasonably repay. The pandemic and recession have created significant challenges for students, affecting college choices and enrollment decisions in the near future. Ultimately, these short-term choices can have long-term consequences for lifetime earnings and debt that could impact this generation of COVID-19-era college students for years to come.1

Don’t let the competition outflank you.

The concern about the higher costs, and bigger advertising budgets, at proprietary schools is justified. These schools, usually with high-price tags, have aggressively marketed and won students during the pandemic. For example, American Public Education Inc., which owns American Public University and American Military University, doubled period-over-period revenues to $2.4 million in the first three months of 2020. By June 9, its stock price hit its highest closing point in a year.

What fueled the increase? Angela Selden, their CEO, told investors that the company went through its marketing budget and then dipped into future allocations. “The pandemic has created an unexpected opportunity,” Selden said, to reach more potential students.

The Hechinger Report notes, “For-profit institutions have long devoted large sums to advertising, spending almost $400 per student on it in 2017, according to research from the Brookings Institution. At nonprofit and public institutions, that figure was $48 and $14, respectively. The ability to significantly invest in marketing, combined with the fact that their instruction is primarily online, has put the largest for-profit universities in an attractive position amid a faltering higher education landscape.2

A Century Foundation3 report revealed massive cash outlays by online proprietary schools as they developed new pandemic-related ads like, “Stay Home. Stay Safe” and shifted to focus on in-demand jobs in health care, IT and online business certifications. Schools are paying as much as $47 per click in order to secure top ad positions for their online programs and the results have been promising. Arizona State University, for example, received more clicks from “university online” searches than any other single search term.

Aureus University School of Medicine, located in Aruba (and one of a number of offshore medical schools), started running ads that explicitly encouraged students to “Start Online During Covid-19.”

For-profit Pima Medical Institute, along with six other institutions, started running display advertisements for their respiratory therapist programs for the first time in their history. Other institutions including University of Cincinnati promoted nursing, respiratory therapy, medical billing and other pandemic-related fields which directly compete with community college pathways.

The advertising dollars spent by for-profit schools are paid by the student tuition. But students do not have to go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt for high quality career training. This is the specialty of community colleges, which provide the pathways to success and now boast new flexibility. Two-year nonprofits remain the value-driven, long-term solution for job training – but the challenge is making sure these facts are known!

If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

There’s an old saying, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” meaning there is no substitute for getting your message out there. If you’ve got online courses, online programs, great teachers, asynchronous classes—make sure your prospective students know it. You may not have the marketing budget of the for-profits. Still, attractive, well-designed and, above all, informative messaging can help students find their place at your community college. But you need to bring your marketing up-to-date and advertise smarter.

Your approach is most effective when it reflects the changes of the last year.

  • Highlight the fact that your community college is going the extra mile to accommodate e-learning. Do you have remote-based tutoring available? That is huge, get the word out!
  • Double-down on affordability. Contrast the cost of your community college with its nearby competition or even the large on-line only institutions. Money is tighter than ever, and the savings can be life-changing.
  • Show the successes of your students with remote learning. Many digital-natives and non-traditional students are thriving online. Even some who struggled at first have now mastered the workflow and our benefiting from a new flexibility of schedule.
  • Make sure to showcase the careers in demand now and provide the solid information students need to craft their own path—online, in-person, or hybrid.

Aperture Content Marketing is here to help you create appealing, fact-based content that will sign up new students.