Expanding Enrollment in Online Degree Programs and Courses at a Traditional Institution

It’s almost impossible to read about changes in higher ed without reading about the “opportunity” for institutions that built online courses during the pandemic to market those programs and courses to “non-traditional” students who would normally not attend on-campus courses. I want to go on record as stating that it’s almost impossible to build substantial incremental student enrollments that way. I’ll explain the reasons for my opinion below.

Traditional institutions are organized to serve traditional students. Even when online courses were quickly constructed during the pandemic, most of the student-serving functions such as academic advising, the registrar’s office, financial aid, the bursar’s office, etc., were not rebuilt to be indifferent between serving on-campus students and online students. These offices and functions need to go online to serve students that will never set foot on campus.

Second, there are only a handful of traditional, campus-based institutions that have successfully built large enrollment online programs and services. Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State University, Grand Canyon University, and the University of Phoenix come to mind as notable exceptions. The landscape is littered with failures. There are notable examples of traditional institutions purchasing online universities to build their online enrollments instead of growing them organically. These include Purdue University’s purchase of Kaplan University, University of Arizona’s purchase of Ashford University, National University’s purchase of Northcentral University, and UMass Online’s purchase of Brandman University.

Why would these institutions choose to purchase online institutions? Marketing to non-traditional students is not the same as marketing to traditional students. The online degree market is competitive and most traditional schools are used to the traditional application process. With few exceptions, if a school markets its online programs to non-traditional students and indicates that it will take weeks instead of days for an admissions decision, that student will move on to the next school that accepts them and allows them to register for classes in a matter of days, if not 24 hours or less. If admissions offices are not staffed to be available online and by telecom during hours other than 9-5, that is a problem as well.

Meeting the needs of online, non-traditional students is different than the needs of traditional students. Many non-traditional students have earned credits at previously attended institutions. Obtaining transcripts and quickly evaluating the credits earned for transfer is also an important decision factor. Part-time students know that it will take them longer to earn a degree than full-time students. Awarding credit for two or three more courses makes a difference for a student who may only have the time to enroll in four courses a year.

Academic advising is important as well. The top online universities connect their new students with academic advisors as soon as admission is granted and sometimes before. These advisors are available online, by chat, email, or phone whenever it suits the student. Requiring a campus visit is a non-starter. The advisors review unofficial transcripts and provide advice to students as to which online courses to begin. As much as I think all students, on-campus or online, would enjoy being able to communicate with their advisors without having to visit a campus office, I think academic advising may be so different for non-traditional, online students that it may have to be a separate unit from the campus-based advisors.

Many universities have converted their printed course catalog to an online version. That will not be an issue. What will be an issue will be building a catalog that indicates which courses are offered online versus on-campus. In addition, the traditional campus is limited by the number of physical classrooms it has available and usually offers its classes in either a trimester (Fall, Spring, and Summer) or quarter system (Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer). There are so many online programs that are now available with monthly semester starts, that few institutions can grow their non-traditional student enrollments with online classes if they only offer them three or four times a year.

Websites for online institutions are very different than websites for traditional institutions. I don’t know that the traditional university website needs to be totally rebuilt and rewritten, but there should be an easy to find place on its home page for a non-traditional, online student to click and go to webpages that are relevant to them instead of the traditional student. Many times,  webpage changes must go through bureaucratic approval processes that involve administrators oriented to the traditional programs and students. Be aware and beware!

Lastly, if your online courses are not engaging, the odds are high that students will choose to go elsewhere as soon as they complete their classes. Some may figure this out in week one which is usually the free drop/add week. Student swirling has been observed for years, but it’s more accentuated with online courses and programs because there is no stigma for the online student who leaves since he/she has not bonded with their fellow students in physical classrooms, dining halls, and dorms. Do not assume that because Professor Smith is a great classroom lecturer that he/she will do well teaching an online class. Do not assume that because Professor Smith taught online during the pandemic that he/she can do it now. Hire instructional designers to assist the faculty to develop their online courses. If traditional faculty request to teach online, train them in best practices for online instruction. If they don’t volunteer, hire faculty experienced at teaching online.

With nearly two decades of experience in online higher education, I could elaborate on many more areas, but these are among the most important for institutions to consider. The process of building an operation to successful serve online students won’t be quick, won’t be easy, and won’t be cheap.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence