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How to Scale Operations to Serve Growing Numbers of Online Students

The EvoLLLuion | How to Scale Operations to Serve Growing Numbers of Online Students
By leveraging technology to drive different aspects of student recruitment and learner success, innovative institutions can scale while continuing to deliver a high-quality experience that contributes to further growth.
Growth can be a scary and exciting time for organizations.

At the University of Arizona, we’ve seen tremendous growth in the number of online learners. In 2017, more than 3,600 students enrolled in UA Online. Over the next few years, enrollment numbers are projected to continue to increase, more than tripling by 2024.

On the one hand, it’s rewarding to see students gain a world-class education that they’ve never had access to before. On the other, it can be daunting to think about the administrative and technological infrastructures needed to scale operations to serve the growing number of online students.

But, while growth requires strategy and intentionality, it’s not overly complex. Moving forward, the expansion of UA Online will require the continued convergence of two key areas: student recruitment and student success.

Here’s how we’re approaching the future growth of UA Online:

Leveraging Technology to Automate Certain Tasks

Technology plays an integral role in student recruitment and enrollment. Through high-touch, high-level technology, it’s possible to support and handle a large pipeline of students without compromising the quality of customer service.

For example, we worked with Interactive Intelligence to create a custom dialer. The dialer enables our enrollment counselors to better support and interact with prospective students by allowing them to focus on students who are ready to engage with them, and let the dialer continue to reach out to students until they are able to find time in their schedules and family life to talk to an enrollment counselor about their future education plans. It also ensures we reach out to students in a timely manner and with the right information based on where the student is in their enrollment process, whether they’ve applied, have been admitted, or are ready to schedule classes with their advisor.

But, technology also has its limits. For example, students don’t want automated interactions. They expect to be able to interact directly with advisors and faculty members. As a result, we’re always looking to strategically utilize automated services in a way that’s as personable as possible, freeing up more time for student interaction. For our faculty, it means continuing to collaborate with our Office of Digital Learning (ODL) to ensure automation doesn’t replace teaching. Instead, technology like VoiceThread is simply used to enhance student learning. For advisors, the ability to create custom communication and present easily digestible data reduced administrative time and provides space for deeper conversations with students.

Meeting Students Where They Want to Be Met

Another piece of the puzzle is diversifying our outreach and reinventing the ways in which students are getting in contact with our enrollment team. Today, we’re seeing a growing number of “stealth applicants.” These students do their own research and come to their own enrollment decision without ever interacting with one of our enrollment counselors.

As a result, segmenting populations to meet students where they want to be met is becoming all the more important. The key is systematically and delicately ensuring we’re reaching out to students in the way that they most prefer—whether it’s through email, text, voicemail, phone call or chat. It also requires a website that gives them all the information they would need to make an informed decision as well as a communication strategy to ensure that students are receiving the information they need, no matter where they are in their enrollment process, without ever having to speak to someone if that is their preference.

Strengthening Student Success

There are multiple ways to meet enrollment goals. But, one of the biggest is through student success and retention. In fact, the number one reason why online students leave is because they feel their institution don’t care about their success.

Retention and student success is a key point of emphasis at UA Online and it’s a big reason why we’ve seen such high year-to-year growth in our enrollment. When we launched in the fall of 2015, we started by hiring dedicated advisors.

Since then, we’ve continued to invest in student support services and ensuring advisors are as responsive as possible to student needs through small caseloads. Our advisors build close personal relationships with students, talking to each individual about their fears, goals and past educational experiences to ensure students find success and community at the UA. In fact, it’s not uncommon for our advisors to have an hour-long conversation with students the first time they meet. We’re committed to investing in our students’ success and we’ll continue to do so moving forward.

Creating Online Communities

Another key component will be creating online communities that exist outside of advising groups. Students want to express their identities and make connections with other online learners. One of the ways we’ve done this is by creating the General Education Academy, a suite of courses designed to help students create connections that enhance their critical attitudes and ability to interact with people of different backgrounds and values. We have also launched social media groups and student newsletters to foster student-to-student interaction points, as well as increase connectivity to the institution at large. This fall, we’re also launching a faculty learning community to help instructors determine new and creative ways to engage students in the online platform.

Partnering with Businesses 

Last, partnering with businesses will continue to be a key component of growth and success for UA Online. As technology and automation continues to evolve, employers are constantly looking for new skills and talent. In past years, the UA has partnered with high-impact businesses such as Geico, Salt River Project and Caterpillar to create curricula tailored to fit industry needs.

Last year, the UA and Caterpillar teamed up to create the 360 Mining Program, a custom educational experience that provides Caterpillar employees with the opportunity to learn, visit, and study active mine sites across the United States and Canada. The program has helped Caterpillar hit the ground running in the relocation of their Surface Mining and Technology Division from Illinois to Tucson, with Caterpillar’s enhanced presence in southern Arizona expected to bring a $600 million impact on local and regional economy.


The growth goals of UA Online are ambitious, requiring an expansion of technology, automation, student recruitment and student success efforts, as well as continued partnerships with high-impact businesses.

But from the start, UA Online was strategically built with growth in mind. With a strong foundation of technology, faculty, curriculum and student support services, we’re prepared to scale our operations and continue to increase educational access for students worldwide.