Give Prospective Online Students the Answers They Crave

An illustration of a single student being lifted from a crowd with a crane
The world of online education is growing. Think online learners have the same questions as on-campus students? Think again.

It’s a “buyers market” in the world of online education. The number of online programs is growing exponentially, flat nationwide tuition rates are allowing students to choose from schools in any physical location, and flexibility is a given. With so many opportunities before them, how are prospective online students making informed choices?

Over the years we’ve conducted interviews, surveys, usability tests, and website tracking to better answer this question. While some of online learners’ top tasks still align with traditional prospective students (Do you have my program?, What courses will I take?, How much will it cost?), the following questions are far less traditional, and just as important to consider addressing on your website.

How long will the program take to complete?

This appears simple, even obvious, right? Decide how many credit hours you can handle per term, then divide the total.

As it turns out, this can be the hardest question for colleges and universities to answer on the website. First, prospective online students need to understand how challenging the courses will be, if they’re offered every term, and how many terms are available per year.

Many online programs don’t follow the traditional semester system, offering a variety of overlapping term lengths, and the volume of coursework varies significantly.

Content suggestion

Include helpful content like:

  • common student timelines
  • graduation data
  • a variety of alumni snippets on program intensity and work/life/school balance

Does prior experience count?

Competency-based exemptions for work experience have sparked widespread enthusiasm with the promise of lowering students’ costs and the number of credits required for a degree, but they come without universal standards. Since all schools handle these exemptions differently, this puts the cognitive load on the inquiring student.

Content suggestion

Include helpful content like:

  • max number of credit hours available for competency-based exemptions
  • how your specific process works, including all the ways students might qualify (work experience, military experience, exams)

Will my degree say “online”?

Although online programs have become more commonplace, prospective students still worry that the common “separate but equal” approach to online education has carried a lasting stigma.

The reputation of the university is still the most important factor, but students also want to know if the online program is taught by the same professors, has the same entrance requirements, and most importantly, “will the degree say online?”.

Content suggestion

Include helpful content like:

  • a few faculty bios for each program
  • describe the culture of the online faculty (Are they fully dedicated to the school or are they working professionals?)
  • answer the diploma question directly on the individual program pages

Are campus visits required?

Entrance interviews, labs, workshops, and exams are just a few of the situations where schools might require students to appear in person.

Content suggestion

Whatever the situation, remove the ambiguity. Address it head-on with a clear statement regarding onsite requirements. Chances are, at least one of your competitors has already done the same.

Will I enjoy this experience?

A decade ago, prospective students fretted over the technology part of online learning. They wondered if their internet connection was good enough, or if they had the computer skills to keep up.

Today, high school online courses are commonplace, and the focus is shifting toward providing a quality experience.

Content suggestion

Show them how the classes are delivered. This isn’t as simple as listing a platform. They need to try it and all of the nuances involved. If you believe in the quality of what you’re selling, then share it. Give prospective students the option to easily jump in and demo/audit a class.

Give them what they came for

All types of prospective students turn to the school’s website as their most-used resource when choosing a program (according to a report published in 2012 by Think with Google).

I believe it’s especially important to go the extra mile for online learners. Many of the standards go right out the window because they don’t have the same in-person interaction a traditional prospective student might find during a campus tour.

Give them the answers they need to make informed choices.

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