Online educational programs are changing the higher education landscape. Online courses promise financial benefits to universities and convenience to students who find it difficult to travel to in-person classes. Past studies that show online offerings attract different students than in-person programs led researchers to investigate how colleges can effectively recruit for online programs.
Interviews with 27 administrators involved in online recruiting at public research universities revealed four key characteristics of recruiting strategies. First, the administrators emphasized the importance of identifying the profile of target students. In most cases, these students are not the same students being recruited for the institution’s face-to-face offerings. Online student populations often feature older students who are working or who have family commitments. One administrator noted that his university has no international students enrolled in its online programs. Some universities recruit more traditional-aged students for their online programs, but in those cases, the academic standards are slightly lower for online admission. These institutions target students who may want to attend their university but do not meet the admissions standards.
The administrators also highlighted the role that university brands play in online admissions. The institutional brand not only grants legitimacy to online programs, but also promises online students access to the resources and alumni network of the larger university. Some of the administrators in the study were concerned about brand dilution as they massively increased enrollment through online programs. One strategy to maintain brand integrity was to have the same instructors with the same credentials teach in-person and online courses.
Other recruiting strategies included outsourcing non-academic services and prioritizing personalized interactions with prospective students. Multiple administrators mentioned the efficacy of handwritten notes to emphasize the institution’s commitment to getting to know and serve each student. Even in a completely online program, there seems to be no replacement for genuine personal interaction.
While this study only includes interviews with administrators at public research universities, the insight it provides about online recruiting can help educators and learners understand the similarities and differences between online and face-to-face college experiences. Further research might examine the recruiting process for online programs from the perspective of prospective students.flickr.