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Should Your Next Vice President of Enrollment Understand the Online Education World?

For a Vice President (VP) of Enrollment, the overall goal seems straightforward: attract students and meet enrollment benchmarks. That goal, however, requires an in-depth understanding of many moving parts, from the factors that motivate students to choose a school (or attend at all) to the factors that can get in the way.


One growing concern in the enrollment world is the wave of online education options. Gap years are more popular (and culturally acceptable) than ever before. Many people are discovering career paths that don’t necessarily involve a traditional college degree and are seeking out vocational tracks and apprenticeships. These trends are changing the enrollment landscape and the number of students even considering any form of college, and strong VPs of Enrollment must lead the way to guide their institutions through these new challenges.


Growth in Online Education

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, resulted in an unusually high spike in online education. Even as more institutions return to “normal,” with in-person courses resuming en masse, there’s still a movement towards online education for both traditional and returning students. That could mean students taking online courses as part of their traditional college education, returning students doing online “night school,” or students deciding an an online degree is their best choice.


According to 2021 research from the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics and the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA), online education boomed big in 2020 and is continuing to play a significant role in the higher education world moving forward.


  • In fall 2019, approximately 63% of enrolled students took no online/remote courses. In fall 2020, only 27% of students had no online/remote courses on their schedules.
  • Among approximately 2,200 NC-SARA-participating institutions, there was an increase of 93% in students enrolled online only.
  • Fifty-nine percent of NC-SARA-participating institutions reported plans to continue some or all their “emergency” online education offerings even after the pandemic.


A VP of Enrollment needs to understand the growing desire for flexibility and remote learning when working with academic leadership in setting enrollment strategy. While previous recruitment strategies focused heavily on on-campus offerings and perks are certainly still relevant, the fact of the matter is that more students are looking for alternative or hybrid options. To continue meeting enrollment goals in this new landscape, institutions need a creative and innovative leader ready to consider what the online education boom means in terms of net tuition revenue.


Opportunities for Adult Education

Online education opportunities are particularly relevant when it comes to returning and continuing adult education. Between 2019 and 2021, the largest enrollment drop was seen among students aged 25 and older. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment among adults ages 25 to 29 dropped 13.6% from fall 2019 to fall 2021, while enrollment among adults age 29 and older dropped 9.1% over the same period. While undergraduate enrollment is dropping across all age groups, those two demographics represent the largest enrollment drop. For institutions that have traditionally relied on adult studies to help augment undergraduate shortfalls, this tactic is no longer viable.


There’s also the growth of alternative options for adult education. From “micro” certifications to employer-specific programs and credentials, there’s a lot more competition for educational institutions, even outside other colleges and universities. To continue attracting adult students, “traditional” learning institutions must think outside the box and focus on what current prospective students and industry leaders want.


For a VP of Enrollment, this means stepping up and having a voice at the table about academic program offerings, modalities, and feasibility of future growth opportunities/declines. Understanding the different niches and needs that all fall under the online education umbrella is also important. A returning student looking for a complete career change will approach education differently than a professional seeking to expand their skill set in their chosen field, and so on. A VP of Enrollment will need to spearhead their institution’s strategy and ask the right questions. Which groups are we targeting? What resources do we offer that are distinctive from our competition set? What partnerships can be formed with outside companies?


Breaking Down the Competition

Online education is only getting more crowded, so enrollment teams have plenty of competition to monitor. There are two main competitive categories: online schools and certificate/alternate learning programs.


Online schools encompass for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, and nonprofit universities that focus on online learning, like Southern New Hampshire University. Online institutions often appeal to students looking for more flexibility and affordability, or who feel like a more traditional institution might not fit their lifestyle. To compete, more traditional institutions – and their enrollment leaders – may wish to focus on flexible offerings and the benefits that their institutions have that alternate schools may not offer.


Competing with certificate programs and specialized credentials may be a little more complex since those may be more specific or smaller in scale than a typical “college course” structure. However, partnerships between companies and higher education institutions may be mutually beneficial: more resources and expertise for the company’s certificate programs, and a ready-made base to market to at the university.


For a VP of Enrollment, understanding both the challenges and the opportunities of the online education space is a must, especially in a world where more students than ever are demanding flexible, online learning options. With the right leadership and the best ideas, institutions that meet these challenges head-on can stand out in an ever more crowded landscape.


By Ruben Moreno


About the Author

After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.” Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR Executive Search and Higher Education Executive Search practice specializing in identifying, assessing, recruiting, and onboarding key executives in HR, Diversity, Enrollment, Student Affairs, and Advancement. Ruben is a thought leader who has helped place hundreds of executives. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their organization and add value beyond executive search.

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