Marketing & Recruiting for Online Programs: 4 Warning Signs

A dedicated admissions and marketing team is a valuable and needed aspect of Universities that seek to offer full online programs to growing numbers of students.  That is a reality today.  At the same time, I contend that the way a University approaches admissions and marketing speaks loudly about the values and priorities of an online program. In particular, similar to my article about 8 Signs That Your University is Selling Out With Online Learning, I suggest that there are four questions you can ask to get at the potential motives and mission-integrity of a University’s online initiative. Please note that such an assessment comes from a qualitative evaluation of the answers to these questions.  This is not a simple checklist, where too many checks on one side indicates a comprised status or ample checks on the other side indicates a rock-solid online program. However, these are direct questions, and they seek to get under the hood of the online program, looking at how it is put together and what that can tell you about the priorities and core values tied to online learning at that institution.

1) What is the balance of full-time marketing and recruitment personal compared to academic and student support personnel? – If you look at the way that some online programs function, you will find that they have more full-time admissions and marketing people than they have full-time online faculty and/or other academic support personnel.  What does it mean if a University with an online presence has 30 full-time recruiters but only a few full-time online faculty members?  Or, what is the ratio of admissions personnel to academic advisors or similar student support people? Budgets speak to values, and a budget that leans that heavily toward marketing and recruitment over academic services says something important about that institution’s priorities. I’ve studied online learning programs long enough to know that these sorts of numbers/ratios really exist in some online programs today. It is a reality that competition for online students can be fierce, and that means significant investments in marketing and admissions, but similar investments are necessary to ensure a high quality academic program and student experience.

2) What do the admissions and marketing people know about the mission? – Ask an admissions or marketing person to recite the University mission statement, core values, or a few things about the history and identity of the institution.  Do they know the names of key people in the University? This is a good sign.  If they don’t, then that is a potential sign that the focus is a mission mismatch between the online program and the rest of the University. Some Universities outsource help in this area, but in my opinion, that is not an excuse. Outsourcing can be a reasonable means of practicing good financial stewardship and collecting needed expertise from outside of the institution, but this can be done in a way where those partners learn about and clearly community the University mission, vision, values and goals.  That is an important part of maintaining institutional integrity in the digital landscape.

3) How do the messages and marketing represent the University mission and distinctives? – Perhaps it is an institution that has a faith tradition, but the online recruitment plan as well as online marketing both seem to be void of any explicit references (visual or otherwise) to those important aspects of the University identity. It is equally disconcerting when admissions personnel downplay the distinctives of the school that might “turn off” some prospective students. If one wants to compare recruitment to sales, this point still holds up.  An ethical salesperson does not hide a central feature of a product just to get someone to buy it. They find out the needs and interests of the customer and try to help them find something that will meet those needs.  If they don’t have such an item, that suggest another option, even if it is at another store.

4) To whom does the head of online learning report?  – There are some instances where the head of online learning reports to a VP of marketing and/or enrollment management. I know instances where this structure exists and they take great care to ensure a strong commitment to academic quality. At the same time, the organizational chart can hint at the true priorities behind offering online programs at a school. Is the online effort first and foremost driven by the goal of additional numbers, or does it come from an academic vision like providing increased access and opportunity to high-quality anytime, anywhere education? The organization chart might provide some clues about that.

These four questions are not a litmus test for institutional integrity in the online learning marketplace, but I find them to be quite helpful in gaining important insights into the priorities and function of a given University’s online programs.



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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.