In the spring, we witnessed COVID-19 completely transform the delivery of higher education, shining a spotlight on the need for universities to build digital strategies to meet the needs of students anytime and anywhere. With demand for online education climbing, now, more than ever, online programs are in a unique position to pave the way to a brighter future for the emerging workforce and our country. Whether it be aligning curriculum design and development with learning goals tied to career outcomes or closing the skills gap through programs informed by the in-demand skills employers need, online education can build a stronger tomorrow.
Toward the end of October, LinkedIn hosted a virtual event, “The New Wave of Students,” that dove into this very topic. LinkedIn’s Jessica Naeve was joined by 2U’s Chief Strategy & Engagement Officer David Sutphen and Kaplan’s President of University Partners and Global Head of Learn-Work Innovation Brandon Busteed to discuss the latest higher education trends, insights, and strategies, including the pandemic’s impact on each of their businesses, brand value proposition, and marketing. Read on for a snapshot of their conversation.
The current higher education landscape
Both Brandon and David agreed that what Kaplan and 2U have accomplished during COVID is an extension of projects already underway prior to the pandemic, but on an accelerated timeline. They have seen interest from universities in digital transformation grow, mainly because online education has become a necessity for resilience. And they have also witnessed a significant increase in the utilization of and demand for alternative credentials, including boot camps and short courses.
For David, he sees this moment in higher education as a digital transformation challenge and opportunity, particularly for 2U’s great non-profit university partners. 2U has known for years that the future of higher education is in how non-profit universities can better address the critical needs of society and redefine what they’re offering to the marketplace to meet the needs of students across their lives at different ages and stages. Having a quality online platform is not enough to engage students—you need to deliver a compelling learning experience. In the spring, we witnessed widespread emergency remote education, and we saw the negative impact that strategy had on enrollment in the fall. A thoughtful approach to integrating technology and pedagogy is key for universities to consider as they continue to adapt to the new higher education reality and embrace digital transformation.
Brand value proposition
Now that nearly every school is online, determining ways to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack is crucial to attracting new students. Brandon and David have found that an institution’s brand value proposition is critical to the scalability of a program. Brand shows up in a lot of different dimensions in higher education. It’s rarely the institution as a whole—it’s the reputation of a particular school or degree offering within a school. So as the market becomes increasingly more crowded and online education is more normalized, differentiation will have a lot to do with how effectively a new offering enters the market and performs.
Marketing integrated with outcomes
Brandon and David have seen the value in the convergence between the marketing functions and student support services functions for an online program. They believe student support services need to be approached with the same vigor, sophistication, and analytical tools as is done on the marketing front. Without an integrated approach, you run the risk of students enrolling, but not persisting.
David shared a story about the importance of integration, using 2U’s first fully online physician assistant (PA) degree with Yale School of Medicine as an example. When 2U set out to launch the degree, the accreditors who Yale went to to get the online program accredited said that in order to get a master’s in PA, students would have to complete between 12 to 14 clinical placements. They would not accredit the program unless 2U and Yale could prove, prior to having any students enrolled, that they could solidify enough fieldwork opportunities. 2U’s placement team approached the marketing team for help in locating placement sites. Based upon all the data 2U has because of the scale the company operates at, the marketing team was able to provide direction to the placement team, suggesting they focus their energy on finding placements in specific geographic regions. Fast forward two years and the first cohort of Yale PA students enroll. 2U found 2,200 clinical placement sites instead of the accreditors required 400, and there was a 95% overlap between where students ultimately enrolled from across the U.S. and where the placement team had gone out and found clinical placement sites. 2U’s data-driven efficiency coupled with a strong student support services team provided for an exemplary student experience and, in part, enabled accreditation.
There’s still more work to be done on integration. According to Brandon, higher education as a whole has made many more advances on the marketing front because of the investment of dollars in that area and how critical it is to be able to acquire new students. But as a higher education sector, we’re behind on that same kind of energy and momentum for student support services.
Interested in catching the entirety of Jessica’s conversation with Brandon and David? Check out the video here. Their session begins at the 1 hour and 30 minute mark.
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