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High Stakes: Marketing to Prospective Online Students

Prospective online students have different needs than traditional higher ed students. Highlight time to completion, return on investment, and self-serve functionalities to better attract these students. 

In a post-COVID-19 era, many colleges and universities are quickly adapting to an online learning modality. The quick switch has led many institutions to consider adding an online campus or investing more heavily in marketing their online programs. As institutions endeavor to recruit online learners, they will begin to realize there are many differences that must be considered when marketing to adult students in need of flexible and career-relevant education compared to traditional-age, campus-based students. 

Higher-ed marketers have access to research describing the societal, behavioral, and demographic differences between adult and traditional-age students, which lead to the development of a target market, profile, and persona. However, there are three major differences to take into account when marketing to online learners that institutions may not anticipate.   

Fast-paced recruitment cycles

Traditional-age students are recruited for many years during high school and community college, and they typically start their higher-ed academic journey in the fall. Online higher education undergoes an accelerated version of this recruitment cycle. Adult students searching for an online college are motivated to start their career advancement quickly; they are ambitious about earning a degree and want their education immediately. When a prospective online student begins developing an inclination to return to school and earn their degree, ideally they want that journey to start in less than two months.   

Marketers must keep online advertising campaigns active at all times to capture prospects who have decided, in the moment, to return to school. Continuous advertising creates a constant flow of eager prospects rolling toward the enrollment team. This can often be a source of aggravation for colleges unaccustomed to responding to student inquiries as they come in, providing quick transcript evaluations, or admitting and enrolling students daily. Institutions ill-equipped to respond effectively may have their prospect’s interest swayed by other institutions offering five-week courses and 15 annual start dates.   

Providing online prospective students with instant access to program information and continuous enrollment requires a fundamental shift in pace among the marketing and enrollment teams. To prevent students from losing interest, marketers should measure prospective student conversions by advertising channel on a weekly basis and support enrollment teams by expanding communication tools to include automated chats, texts, phone calls and email outreach.  

Emotional and logical approach

When a student is choosing a college, they are selecting their lifelong alma mater, the name that will be forever listed on their resume and LinkedIn profile.  A prospective student is joining a learning community that will shape their thoughts, minds, hearts and careers. It is a highly emotional decision.    

This is true for both traditional and post-traditional students, the difference being adult online students have likely started their career path in a specific industry and developed a firm understanding of their financial situation and family obligations. These factors pull a tremendous amount of logic into the equation. Online students will research a few different college websites and quickly become accustomed to self-serve information by comparing degree program accreditation, tuition, financing opportunities, courses, career outcomes, and even the institution’s online experience and engagement opportunities. The absence of this information on a website could be interpreted as a red flag.  

In the crowded online higher ed space, a degree’s return on investment needs to be front and center on all websites. Colleges have to prove their worth. Degree programs also need to differentiate themselves from those offered by other institutions in a meaningful way, which will prove the student’s investment worthwhile. 

Increasing competition

College marketing done right requires a significant marketing budget, yet it pales in comparison to the budget needed to break through the steep competition in online college marketing. Prospective student research almost always starts with a Google search. According to SEMRush, the average cost per click (CPC) for the search keyword “college” is $7.46–not exactly cheap. Multiply that cost by five and you arrive at the CPC for the keyword “online college,” priced at $37.66.  

The expense is driven by increased competition for prospective students through direct channels that are cost-prohibitive for many institutions. Marketers now have the responsibility of developing more creative approaches to lead generation. Many are utilizing alumni, corporate, or other existing partnerships to create a concierge-style experience. Grassroots recruiting efforts can be amazingly successful but require staffing, time, and additional resources. Marketers are in the position to help inform leadership teams of the competitive challenges ahead in the online degree space and advocate for adequate marketing budgets and resources to be dedicated toward strategic recruitment efforts. 

Adult online students are often the hardest working and most committed students at a school.  They balance careers, family obligations, and schoolwork with little to no financial assistance from parents. The stakes are higher for them, and they don’t have the time or money for a misstep. Marketers need to understand their prospects are willing to work hard for their degree; however, adult students in turn are looking for a college and degree that will work hard for them.  


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