Published on 2014/07/01

Surviving Recruitment to an Online Degree Program: 10 Questions to Ask Your Enrollment Counselor

Surviving Recruitment to an Online Degree Program: 10 Questions to Ask Your Enrollment Counselor
It’s critical for students to know what to ask when considering enrolling in an online degree program.
It’s a slow day at work and you’ve been pondering the future. You decide to take the fateful step of leaving your contact information on a website promoting an online degree program. Maybe it was a university site or a third-party lead aggregator’s site. Maybe it was a non-profit university or maybe it was a for-profit — sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Congratulations! You are now a “lead” who has entered the recruiting “funnel.”  You may get a phone call within seconds of leaving your information, unless the data currently suggest that leads find a too-quick phone call to be off-putting, in which case they’ll train the auto-dialer to wait a while before calling. But, as anyone recruiting for online programs knows, “speed to lead” is an important determinant of enrollment conversion rates, so a call is coming; actually, many calls until they get a “live contact.”

If the recruiting operation of the institution you have engaged with is the least bit sophisticated, your lead record will be evaluated by a computer and be assigned to a marketing campaign. This campaign is designed to provide you with the optimum kind and number of “touches” to increase your likelihood of enrolling. Data mining has determined that for your program of interest, someone of your age and gender is most likely to respond to one phone call every other day and two e-mails per week. Or maybe it’s the other way around, but you get the idea.

You and your employer tuition reimbursement, student loan and personal savings are well on their way to becoming part of a much-needed “revenue stream” for the university. If that thought doesn’t inspire you to enroll, know that you’re also helping some possibly nice people “make their numbers.” Enrollment counselors and their bosses have to eat, too.

If you feel like a fish on the hook being reeled in, you’re not far off. Many of the people involved in online program recruiting operations could just as well be selling computer systems, timeshares or copiers … which isn’t to say they’re bad people, but to suggest that their incentives for recruiting you may not be entirely aligned with your goal of finding the best online program.

What’s a poor lead to do? The first step is to recognize that you’re being sold. The online program these recruiters tell you about may be as fabulous as they say and the ideal fit for you and your goals, but then again, it may not. It’s up to you to be a savvy consumer, ask the right questions and make your own judgments.

Usually, you can count on enrollment counselors knowing two types of information: first, information about the program that you can read for yourself on the site and, second, the process you need to complete to become enrolled. You’re going to have to dig deeper to learn anything else. Be prepared when that enrollment counselor calls and asks, “Do you have any questions about the program that I can answer for you today?”

Here are ten questions to have at the ready:

  1. Can you put me in touch with a few current students or recent graduates?

  2. Can you put me in touch with a faculty member?

  3. Can you put me in touch with my academic advisor?

  4. Can I get access to a sample online class?

  5. How long has the program been online and what is the current enrollment?

  6. What percentage of enrolling students graduate?

  7. What career services do you provide?

  8. What schools do you consider to be your major competitors? What makes you different?

  9. I notice your program costs <x> percent more (or less) than <insert competitive program>. What am I getting for the extra money? Or, how are you able to offer your program for a lower price than your competitor?

  10. How can I make sure I’m getting your lowest tuition rate or highest possible discount for this program?

The enrollment counselor’s reaction and responses to these questions may provide you with some useful information that’s not on the site. Ideally, you will pierce the enrollment veil and connect with people involved with the actual operation of the online program — an advisor or a faculty member in the academic department that runs the program in which you are interested. These are the people who are ultimately going to determine the experience you will have in the program.

Just like campus programs, some online programs are great, while others are terrible. Good and bad online programs may exist within the same university. Some recruiting operations are super slick, while others are amateurish. The quality of an academic program may have little to do with the quality of the recruiting operation, so make sure you’re evaluating the right thing. When it comes down to it, nothing beats talking to other people like you who have actual experience with the program.

No matter what the price is in dollars, any online degree program is expensive in terms of the time, blood, sweat and tears you (and your family and friends) are going to put into it. Approach the recruiting process with your eyes wide open and a healthy degree of skepticism. Ask the right questions of the right people. If you select the right program, it will all be worth it.

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Readers Comments

Quincy Adams 2014/07/01 at 9:10 am

It’s really interesting to see the ‘hook and reel’ strategy employed by many recruiters described from this perspective. It’s helpful that Hagan provides these questions that prospective students should ask to help them see past the sales pitch and determine whether an institution can actually meet their education needs. It’s unfortunate more prospective students don’t have access to this type of advice before being approached by an institution and making a (possibly uninformed) decision.

Mike H 2014/07/02 at 11:38 am

It’s disgusting what some online providers will do to attract enrollment dollars. What Hagan should also mention is that many recruiters are hired by an institution (so, not internal to the institution and therefore not truly familiar with it) and that they have sales targets for enrolling students. There needs to be more of an effort by an oversight body (e.g. government, county board) to target these unscrupulous providers and give prospective students accurate information about their options.

    Eric Hagan 2014/07/05 at 11:53 am

    Very true, large online university recruiting operations often outsource recruiting to greater or lesser extent – not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say. Even if the recruiters are university employees and on campus, they make have precious little interaction with the academic program for which they are recruiting.

    A common tactic is for a university to hire an outside telemarketing firm to do “lead qualification.” The idea here for the vendor to make a large number of phone calls to identify the best prospects or “hot leads” and then turn those relative few over to the university recruiters for further “cultivation.”

    My point in writing this article was not to demonize professional recruiting operations, whether internal to the university or outsourced. Indeed some vendors are very reputable, train their employees well, and provide better information than university employees. My point was for prospective students to understand the recruiting process, use it to their best advantage, and understand its limitations and when to get past the recruiters.

    Caveat emptor!

Endre Polyak 2014/07/26 at 9:16 am

It’s all so sadly true not only in connection with student enrollment but also in the English teacher job market. It is considerably tiring trying to sift out the spam job offers from the real ones.

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