Once thought to be a great disrupting force for traditional classroom education, online education has become mainstream. For providers, market crowding demands creativity both in articulating their online value proposition and integrating that with their on-ground strategy; institutions cannot simply “go online” and expect enrollments to grow. To successfully compete in the online arena today, schools can augment their existing programs and offer existing student markets greater flexibility by developing hybrid and online programs tailored to their institution, local and regional communities, and their target student market.
In the past, growth in the online market meant growing enrollments. Offering online courses and programs was sufficient to compete with the national market of online providers; supply was limited, and value propositions varied little. “Going online” was, in and of itself, a differentiator. Between the late 1990s and 2010, however, online education grew vigorously. In this period, the number of online students is estimated to have passed 2.5 million, more than 10% of all students in U.S. higher education, according to Eduventures estimates in the “Online Higher Education Market Update.”
With the increased supply of online education beyond the few key players of the early 2000s, the market has stabilized and broader market trends have taken hold. Online delivery is not as new and exciting as it once was, and, as a result, is not immune to the estimated 1.8% decline in total enrollments that was logged for the fall 2012 semester. “Going online” is no longer code for successfully entering a national market, riding the buzzword wave of convenience, accessibility, and flexibility. For many institutions, the national online market is simply out of reach; or, to say the least, it is not necessarily the gold mine of prospective students that will compensate for flagging enrollments elsewhere.
How can individual institutions succeed in this altered landscape of online market maturity? With so many online providers and a newly mature online market, institutions without plans to venture online face shifting expectations and require a stronger case for remaining on-ground. For institutions looking to enter or expand their presence in the online market, the answer is not as easy as it once was.
In a sea of online providers, individual institutions – whether their programs are fully online, blended, or on-ground – need to identify what differentiates their offerings, as they have been in crowded on-ground markets for decades. After determining which programmatic market to pursue, an institution should then decide whether to compete nationally. Crowding in the online market means that most providers’ reach will likely not extend far beyond their region; online delivery no longer has the simplistic national draw it once promised.
Assuming a regional focus, questions arise about the message purely online delivery sends about the value of a provider’s location. Just as institutions cannot afford a cookie-cutter image if they want to compete effectively in the traditional market, providers seeking to extend their reach online need to clearly articulate their value proposition to appeal to their target audience. Given that this target audience will likely lean local, part of this value proposition should be tied to the institution’s location and community.
Hybrid delivery may be a compelling way to tie this local audience to a local institution while leveraging the practical uses of online delivery. Students will benefit from online elements in their experience, whether in terms of richer study materials, on-demand lecture review, or simply scheduling convenience. If schools carefully integrate online elements into their DNA, they stand to benefit from improved student engagement, higher graduation rates, and even, if done right, cost reduction.
Rather than attempting to supplement their on-ground offerings with a competing online approach, providers should look to establish a complementary online strategy, one that is rooted in the same value proposition that attracts students to their on-ground programs. Institutions should seek to build upon existing on-ground foundations and leverage the convenience of online delivery as a way to circulate their value to a broader audience.
In 2013, there are no longer any easy answers. The details will vary by institution, and simply replicating a high-performing peer’s strategy may not garner success. By identifying opportunities to engage student markets through unique, institution-specific programs, with a particular eye towards engagement of local and regional student markets, institutions can not only weather the arrival of online market maturity, but thrive in the substantially altered higher education market.