Here’s a fun fact: Apollo’s University of Phoenix currently enrolls more students than the ten largest non-profit institutions combined – that’s according to a September 2012 report from Parthenon’s Chris Ross. What’s more, it seems a handful of small non-profit universities are taking cues from Apollo and achieving scale.
The report focuses on the online market, identifying tremendous opportunity for growth across-the-board. With for-credit MOOCs teed up for discussion and more administrators looking at these online learning models, there are already some lessons to be learned from the field.
Ross points to three major influences for success in the online sector: regional / specialty branding, inbound marketing and partnerships with for-profit “enablers”.
1. Brand & Competition
On the whole, Ross maintains that online students are not particularly discerning with their enrollment decisions. The typical profile is a working adult that wishes to get a degree to improve job prospects and growth potential. Furthermore, competition on price is getting increasingly difficult to penetrate.
Online education has historically experienced minimal cost competition, but the emergence of non-profit institutions in the online space will almost certainly change that. Virtually all for-profit institutions examined (17 of 19) price individual credits within the same $400-$600 per-credit band. By comparison, new entrant non-profit institutions have begun to introduce variation into the marketplace, with several offerings below $400 or above $600 per credit hour. -Chris Ross, Parthenon Group (September 2012)
So how do new entrants compete, if not on price? Find your brand voice – and realize it may be different than the one you use in your brick-and-mortar setting. Look at specific programs that are unique to you school, try to dominate a region instead of the entire country, or put your stamp on student services – say you offer the best – and then deliver.
Successful online universities also employ a different strategy when it comes to marketing – a mix of push and pull advertising that relies heavily on referrals and word-of-mouth. The below visualization of the Parthenon Group’s data is telling:
The non-profit sector relies heavily on word-of-mouth, targeted search and banner ads (all elements of “inbound marketing”). TV, radio, magazines and recruiters are a relatively small percentage. Interruption-based techniques – push or “outbound marketing” – are employed more often by for-profits and brick-and-mortar institutions.
3. Partnerships with For-Profit Enablers
The final component is based on a practical reality: successful online universities offer students great online service – from easy navigation to high-quality modules and sophisticated reporting / progress reports. If your institution doesn’t have strong internal IT, tech development and content creation capabilities, you are at a distinct disadvantage. As it stands, the way competitors in the online space have gotten around this issue is by forming partnerships with companies that serve as “tech enablers”.
Currently a small handful of companies serve over 100 non-profit universities. Ross says “with over 2,000 higher education institutions in the United States, there is plenty of “white space” left for these online enablers”. These partnerships provide the universities with a wide variety of services, including but not limited to: course development, IT support, tech development, recruiting / marketing strategy, processes, etc.
The time has come for higher education to adopt a touch of the for-profit world's pace and general willingness to break with convention for the sake of staying one step ahead of the competition. We're here to help you take the plunge.
Author: Meredith Singer is Head of Ops & Co-Creative at Verge Pipe Media. Verge Pipe Media assists public institutions, enterprises and the non-profit sector with Imaginative Inbound Marketing strategies + campaigns. We also have a development team chock full of Marvelous Mobile Migrators, poised to help transition our clients into a mobile + social world with custom software, iOS and Android mobile apps.