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Taking Advantage of the Online Opportunity Without Overstretching

The EvoLLLution | Taking Advantage of the Online Opportunity Without Overstretching
As online programming becomes more common across the United States, leaders are trying to determine whether this theoretically border-free education model actually has the legs to take institutions outside of their geographic boundaries.

Online education has, in many ways, changed the face of the higher education industry. Beyond creating greater expectations around self-pacing, flexibility and service, it has impacted the markets any college or university can compete in—and greatly expanded the number of competitors on the home front. When it comes to taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the online education market, though, a shotgun approach is ineffective. In this interview, Cheryl Oliver shares her thoughts on what it takes to identify and succeed in new geographic markets using online programming.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few major advantages online education provides a college or university when it comes to expanding their reach?

Cheryl Oliver (CO): At Washington State University, a land-grant university, online education allows us to deliver on the foundation of our mission; making lives better through education and doing so beyond our geographic bounds. Offering online programs provides a vehicle for universities to make a positive impact in their region and our world.

Delivering online academic programs allows us to reach students who are in suburban or rural locations and isolated from other campuses or other opportunities for engagement with content and colleagues. It also allows us to reach students who may be in congested urban areas with multiple competing priorities and limited time. Many institutions of higher education are in the business of making lives better through education and providing our regions and the world with tools for economic development. Mission realization, I think, is the number-one reason for schools to go online.

Online education helps us to make an impact. The associated activities of commuting to campus (for example, finding childcare, rearranging work schedules, finding and paying for parking) are prohibitive for many working students. A number of those things—those commutes, those parking passes, that extra childcare, maybe even just having to eat differently because time is limited—are hidden costs of a campus-based solution to education for a working professional student. Schools that do choose to go online are reaching people where they are, on their time. We’ll save them those opportunity costs and then enable them to try out what they learn, applying their education to their work immediately, allowing them to make an impact in their own work, their homes and in their communities.

Evo: What does it take for an institution offering online programming to effectively penetrate new geographic markets that aren’t within their traditional service area?

CO: There is brand affinity in the specific region around a school so it is important for us to consider what the value proposition would be for us if we were to attempt to reach another area.

The important considerations schools should take into account when deciding on new markets to serve are, first, what are their core competencies and, second, what are their capabilities for filling a need for that geographic market?

The first factor to consider is the university’s core competencies. Ask if there is a specific industry that has recently come into that area and whether the school has available faculty expertise that lends to workforce development. It is possible there could be a good partnership for economic development in that area. I can think of a few examples of near-constant market need; nursing education, data analytics, and various business functions.

If a university attempts to target a new market, they should be very aware of which student persona they’re going after and what needs those students have that the university can fulfill. An assessment of the needs of that geographic market is important. Is there alignment between the institutional or departmental competency and the market’s needs overall? It can be very costly and very difficult to try to establish a brand or try to convince a new market that your product is superior in an environment saturated with generational brand loyalty. That said, networking with a regional university in a win:win partnership could help both schools realize mission and make a positive impact.

Evo: How does state authorization play into the decision-making process when it comes to deciding whether or not to pursue enrollments in different states?

CO: We have made investments, and I know other schools have done the same, in meeting the specific requirements of the states that surround our geographic area and beyond.

It’s so important for a school to consider whether this kind of program is really going to be in their best interests, and if so, what resources they have to manage critical relationships with companies, providers or supervisors that may be overseeing their students to ensure that the student is getting the right experience and complying with their state’s requirements.

In some cases, enrollment demand may not be enough for the endeavor to be worth a school’s investment. On the other hand, with a clear market strategy and core set of competitive competencies, it could be worthwhile to make the offering available to students from different states. Before making the investments and going through the authorization process, it is important to consider all of those factors.

My other thought on this is that as long we (universities) are continuing to show value and work at a high level of leadership across the country to help each other understand how we can provide value and support one another, creating mutual gains for economic development, we will continue to see improvements in state authorization.

Evo: In your own experience, how do you balance marketing and outreach efforts between the local, state and national market?

CO: We have a couple of different ways of looking at balancing marketing and outreach efforts.

The first job is determining who those people are who may not even be considering going to school right now. We need to identify the tactics we want to employ to encourage them to increase their knowledge base, their skill set or to attempt to acquire tools that could help them be successful as they pursue their goals and dreams. That’s a particularly different sell with regards to marketing for education and particularly in higher education. Some of us have even moved into the market of looking at just-in-time education, certifications or other credentials to try and meet that learner right where they are and give them the skills and tools they need to do the next thing on their list.

The next job is looking at how we compete in an environment where students might be looking for a specific type of program—whether that’s an MBA or a specialized masters in finance, accounting or marketing—and help them understand how our programs are the best fit for them and their needs. That’s a very competitive market, so we need to really understand ourselves, understand what it is we have to offer and then find those students for whom those values are as important as the degree.

That would be the advice I would give to any school trying to figure out how to reach a different student population. We’re all looking for future alumni, we’re looking for people with whom our values are aligned and who add diversity to our school. So how do we go into those environments and find the right fit for us, not just based on return on investment but reflective of our values as well? Who is going to be somebody to come back and contribute, or hire students, or speak in classes? Who might be our lifelong learner?

The other piece is really looking at where we can be of service. In the state of Washington, we have a lot of people working in agriculture, we have a number of entrepreneurs and we have a large military population. So for us, as we’re focusing on tactics and balancing our outreach locally and in the state and national markets, we’ve been able to have some wins locally in the state with those three populations. What’s more, we can take those wins to the national market, clearly outlining our outcomes for these demographics and showing how we can help similar people in different places.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity