Our annual report, Voice of the Online Learner, explores the ever-changing landscape of online learning by examining student behaviors, preferences, and experiences.
In our 11 years of amplifying online learners’ voices, we’ve never seen a more complex shift. That’s why for this year’s discussion we brought in key industry insiders to discuss the results of the survey and what it may mean for the future of online learning.
Key Discussion Areas
Panelists from Wiley University Services, UPCEA, University of Illinois-Springfield, Northeastern University, and Eduventures all had key insights from the data to share in this lively discussion. Topics included:
- who today’s online learners are and generational differences between them
- shifting preferences toward the inclusion of synchronous learning
- employer support and the challenge of using tuition benefits
- where microcredentials and degree alternatives fit in the picture
- how positive outcomes lead to loyal alumni
This webinar was hosted in partnership with UPCEA.
Stream the Webinar
All right. It is one o’clock Eastern and I would like to welcome everybody to Voice of the Online Learner: What Current Preferences May Signal for the Future. Thank you everyone who is joining us today. I’m Shandi Thompson from Wiley University Services. I would like to thank UPCEA and Jim Fong for partnering on bringing this webinar to you. Before we dive in, there’s just a couple of bits of housekeeping I want to get everybody caught up on. First off is please ask your questions via the Q&A feature. We will be monitoring this feature so we will answer anything simple during the chat. We will also forward your questions during our Q&A session at the end. For anything else, any comments to anybody, please use the chat function. We will monitor that as well. Also, today we do have a few handouts for you. So if you check out your handouts panel, you can download the Voice of the Online Learner 2022 report, as well as a copy of today’s slides. And as a reminder, a link will be sent out to the recording for all registrants. After the webinar, you will see that come to your inbox tomorrow. And with that, I would like to pass it over to David Capranos and get us started.
Thanks for that, Shandi. So we collected a group of industry experts today to walk us through a conversation we intend to have around some of the survey data that we recently collected. I’ll talk about this a little bit more in the following slide, but essentially we did a pretty large survey of online college students, asked them a number of questions and found some interesting results. And so we’ve collected this group of folks to go through the data with us and share their insights on some of the chips we’re seeing in the marketplace. So I’m going to ask them all to introduce themselves. First off, I’m David Capranos. I’m a Director of Market Strategy and Research at Wiley. I do a number of things around research from survey data to more consultative type work with our institutional partners. Jim, do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself and then pass it along?
Sure. Thank you very much, David. It’s my pleasure and honor to be part of this group. I’m very excited to dive in with my colleagues here. My name is Jim Fong. I’m a Chief Research Officer at UPCEA University Professional and Continuing Education Association, which is a mouthful. We represent about 400 institutions, nonprofit out of D.C. I am located out of State College, Pennsylvania. Let me pass the ball over to Vickie Cook.
Dr. Vickie Cook:
Hi, I’m Vickie Cook, I’m the Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Online, Professional, and Engaged Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield. I’ll pass this on to my colleague, Sean.
Thank you Vickie. Great to join everyone. My name is Sean Gallagher. I’m Executive Director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University. It’s been a pleasure to work with my colleagues here across a number of projects over many years, including with Richard who’s coming next, when we did some research on this space a decade or two back.
Thanks, Sean. Great to be here. My name is Richard Garrett. I’m the Chief Research Officer at Eduventures, which is higher education research consulting firm these days, part of Encoura and ACT. As Sean said, I’ve been researching the higher education space for well over 10 years, so I’m pleased to be here and discuss the latest trends.
Great. Well, thanks for that. We’re looking forward to an engaged conversation. The plan here today is essentially for us to run through some of the data that we found from our survey and then I’m going to pose some questions that we’ve both internally had and ones that we’ve collected from you, the audience, to our panel here to help us better understand and contextualize some of these data. So what’s the survey that I keep mentioning? What is this all about? So this is our 2022 Voice of the Online Learner survey. This is the second year we’ve done a Voice of the Online Learner branded survey, but really it picks up from a decade of work in a previous product called the Online College Student survey. Many of you may be familiar with that. So we’ve got now something like 12 years of data to be looking at.
And throughout this report we’ve included some of that data from the past to look at trends over time. We’ve asked similar questions year over year. We’ve asked new questions, but essentially all these questions go to a pool of candidates that are either directly engaged in online learning at the college level today or they’re recently applying or maybe they’re recent graduates. We try to get a fresh sample every year. A lot of them are folks that we at Wiley Service kind of through our Online Program Management business, but also we get students from the larger community as well. So there’s a good chance students that you may work with could be some of the ones that we surveyed. We have a number of insights in this report, things like trying to define who the post-pandemic learner is and what the new landscape is. We do a lot around understanding different learning modalities and what students are interested in, what they may be more open to in terms of changing shifts in the marketplace.
And then some really direct questions about how they decided on a program, what were they looking at, how do they make their decisions. I think a lot of this front of the funnel conversation on why a student might pick a degree over another one or pick a school over another school or another program or format. We don’t focus so much on the actual learning experience in this report. There’s a little bit of it and we’ll talk a little today about some of the things we found, but there is a deeper report called the Online Learner Experiences Survey that we do as well, and we see that as a companion piece to this one. So this one’s maybe a little bit more in the front of the funnel and then that one’s looking more at students that are in the actual programs. Like I said before, the format is we’re going to start off with section one and think about really defining who the online learner is today through an handful of questions that we asked.
And then I’m going to throw it to the group to get some reaction to some of these data. The first thing I wanted to address is this idea of a post-pandemic learner. This is something that came out of a research that we did last year. We asked a number of different questions as you could imagine when we were serving folks. But there was one question in particular about, did the pandemic impact your decision to go online essentially, right? It was a pretty simple question, and we found was about a third of our audience said, “Yeah, I had actually not thought about online learning until the pandemic. The pandemic sort of drove me to consider this as an option for the modality.” And so what we’ve decided to do is track this group over the years. And so we’ve asked that question again this year, we’ve got similar, about 30% of our students that they fell into this group. We’re calling them the pandemic-driven learners and trying to understand how they may behave differently on some key factors.
And so there’s a lot more data about this in the actual report, but we did find that these pandemic-driven learners, like I said, by definition, attended online initially due to the pandemic restrictions. This audience tended to be a little bit younger than what we would think of as maybe our more traditional online learner. They were more likely to actually prefer some in-person instruction and maybe it was more situational that was pushing them towards the online modality. They were much more interested in synchronous sections. So they were a little bit more willing. I think historically we’ve thought about the online learner as maybe someone that’s older, not as into the synchronous element, but this group was a little bit more open to it. And then also they did signal that they’re a little more open to potentially moving back to campus at some point throughout their learning. So you might think of these as potential hybrid learners or something along those lines.
But they do have that idea in the back of their head that, hey, maybe at some point I’m only going to do this for a semester or two and then go back. Whereas most of our traditional online learners, as we’ll see in the presentation here, really only consider online and wouldn’t really consider taking a face-to-face program. So with that being said, we do ask a volume of questions that are around this idea of how important is online to you? I think a lot of schools, when they’re thinking about bringing a program online, there’s this initial question about cannibalization, right? If I offer my MBA online, I’ll no longer have MBA candidates in my campus program, that’s really going to be a problem for us as an institution because there’s a lot of import to having a face-to-face program available. What we find is that that’s actually not likely to be the case.
In most cases, the folks that are choosing an online program have already decided way in advance that they’re going to go online. It’s not a coin flip decision for these folks. And so we did ask, if the program you wanted was not available online format, how likely is it that you would’ve enrolled in an on campus program? And you can see here something like two-thirds of those folks are not confident that they would, they’d find something else to do. They may even choose a different path or different school, that sort of thing. We did ask and almost 80% of the students said, “I picked online first. Then I decided where I’m going to go, what I’m going to study.” When we look at these trends and how they’ve shaped over time, we found that now it’s like two-thirds of students say that they wouldn’t do an on campus program no matter what. A few years ago, five, six years ago, it was something like 50%, 44% that we’re seeing that.
So we’re seeing this splitting, this widening gap being more and more direct. These folks are more and more confident that online is the way for me, this is what I’m doing. This is the only option. So if you don’t have that online program available for them, you’re basically not going to get that student is what it comes down to. Vickie, I know I kind of went through a track here around how they choose that sort of thing. What I didn’t do is a pivot table on looking at age or gender or something along those lines. And I’m curious, we’ve had some conversation about the generational differences. I did mention earlier that these post-pandemic students tends to be a little bit younger. How does that shake out with your experience?
Dr. Vickie Cook:
Yeah, so the research that I do on generational learning really indicates that this pandemic-informed group of students who are younger than those that we’ve typically seen in the online learning field, they are all about choice and they are looking at making their own choices and they want a wide range of modalities available. And so what you have found is exactly what I have discovered as I work with generation Z students and having them think through. I think the piece that we have to be cognizant of is some of them have experienced some very poor online learning experiences. And so now we have to think about how do we make those online learning experiences high quality? And I think there are ways of course that we can work on that with the pedagogical research that’s being done in the field as well.
Yeah, that’s such a good point Vickie. We’ve even tried to reframe it like there was some emergency remote teaching that was happening and that’s sort of different. That’s a different thing, but I don’t know if everybody’s going to catch that message. But yeah, I think when we think about it, a really well-managed online learning program that’s going to be quite a bit different than some of the email and Zoom stuff that happened during the pandemic. Richard, I’m interesting in your opinion that we’re talking a lot about these people that are really excited about online learning and they really want to do some online learning. But generally speaking, what do we think the pandemic did for learner demand overall? But it seems like some of those numbers are really down. What are your thoughts on that?
Right. I think this is the angle we have to bear in mind. On the one hand, yes, it does seem to have been accelerated by the pandemic increased interest in online learning, but it doesn’t seem to have translated into overall an increased interest in learning overall at post-secondary level. I think that’s because we’re still in a very low unemployment environment. We’ve got many more job openings than apparently people are willing to take them. We’ve had in recent years gains in net wages across the adult spectrum from the highest educated to the lowest educated. So all kinds of reasons why people might not prioritize enrolling in post-secondary education or wanting to put it off. And the pandemic I think was such an unusual period in history, had so many contradictory variables that again, there was really no net benefit to enrollment. I think we just have to bear that in mind. Yes, on the one hand, online does seem to have gained ground, but it’s within essentially the same pie and that pie of rule is going in the wrong direction.
Sean, what are your thoughts on that? Can we look at the last couple of recessions and do some modeling based on that or are we in something totally different now?
Yeah, as Richard notes and as we all know, the pandemic was certainly pretty exceptional so it’s hard to read too much into some of that data. But it reminds me of what happened with the great recession 2007, the 2009 or 10, when all of a sudden there was this great economic insecurity. We actually did research on this, Richard and I together at Eduventures at the time. And you could see that people were kind of rushing back into school. And by that, I mean it could be online to shore up their career possibilities, complete a degree that had started but not finished, maybe weighed out the bad economy where we had much higher unemployment by earning a master’s online, and a number of other dynamics that really kind of pulled forward a lot of the demand that was there in the market.
And I think what we’re seeing now is the same thing has happened where over the last two, two and a half years, especially in that initial period, 2020. And this shows up all over the place in enrollment data, people had more time on their hands and they didn’t have access to much other than you could have an online experience, you could stream online movies, you could enroll in an online education program where you could bake bread at home, those kinds of dynamics. And so we got this boost in enrollment and now we’ve returned to normal. And then we also have to deal with the fact that the online market today is just much more mature. And then you had many colleges and universities sort of the late movers who hadn’t yet invested in this space, they made the investments they needed to and now we have even more options.
And so for the first time in about 20 or 25 years, there seems to be a real slowing down because online today is so mainstream. It’s not as simple as we’re going to put our MBA online and we’re going to easily generate enrollment. You have to be much more nuanced. To the point in this slide, just to close things out, that crosses over into students who might be interested in hybrid modalities, more traditional age students. I think we’re at a pivot point where online is no longer an other and it’s now post-pandemic kind of interwoven into all the educational choices.
Yeah, it’s such a good point. I found myself stumbling over the phrase traditional online student a couple of times just because there is a traditional student now, just because it’s been such a thing for almost a generation now. So moving on here into our next kind of volley of research here, how preferences shifted. So I’m going to talk through some of the data that we found. One that is really fascinating for us is this idea that students are becoming a little bit more open to asynchronous learning. I think we have traditionally thought of the online student as being one that wants a completely synchronous experience. We’ve often in the past even coached programs to say don’t do anything asynchronous because it’s really going to shrink your footprint. You’re not going to be able to get students from another time zone because they’re not going to be willing to log on.
But what we did find here in these data is that students are a little bit more open to it, right? We’re seeing some of these numbers take up. Their overall, 70% of them are still saying I want asynchronous generally, but I would be open to maybe one or two experiences during the program or one or two experiences during a class. So we’re not talking about here every Thursday night, you’re logged in from seven o’clock to nine o’clock. What we’re talking about is maybe an interesting sharing of ideas in the middle of the program or the middle of the class, or maybe it’s a multi-day residency or something along those lines. But students are getting a little bit more open to these ideas. With that, there’s been a trend that we’ve been tracking for years now around the proximity to campus. And so again, like I said before, a lot of our concerns have always been, well, you’re really going to limit your geographic footprint and you’re not going to get these students from across the country that you really want.
But the reality is that we find a significant amount of students come from driving distance to your institution, if not, maybe let’s say a one or two state radius around you. So we can see here 10 years ago something like 50% of the folks coming from less than 50 miles. I think that’s a nightly commute possible radius, 50 to a hundred miles is maybe once a month or coming in on the weekends, that sort of thing. And then more than a hundred is a special trip. And what we’ve seen is these numbers have been pretty consistent. We thought we were observing a trend from 2012 through to the last couple of years that the proximity was getting closer and closer. This year upended it a little bit. So you say, hey, is that a quirk of the data? Is it something related to the pandemic? Is it a larger flight to quality? It’s kind of hard to tell at this point what exactly is happening until we get maybe a few more years of data in it. But Jim, I wanted to get your opinion on this. Is there a new type of maybe commuter student that’s more online but kind of travels? What are your thoughts on that? How are things shifting here?
Well, I think you mentioned it earlier that the chance of losing a student here. I highly encourage the audience to download the new report if you haven’t. I think it’s on page 12 where you ask a question about if the program you wanted was not available in online format, how likely would you enroll in the program? I think the big finding was that almost two-thirds you would lose these students if you didn’t have online. It tells me that the student has become accepting of online now as opposed to it’s either online or on campus. So this new commuter would be somebody that would say, okay, I don’t want to pay for housing and I want to avoid fees, so they would drive within 50 miles. So there was that high correlation of geography and cost and other things like that.
I think that distance is obsolete now. I think that one slide proves it. And that might be one of the reasons why some state institutions, state colleges and community colleges are suffering as a result is because now a student has more choice and they can probably find a program that’s less expensive than what’s in their regional market. It’s just whether or not it’s the right program and has the right quality in what they’re looking for. That whole flexibility piece that Vickie talked about earlier is even more critical. It’s a more complex and more competitive environment. But I think there are solutions for institutions as well and we will talk about those fairly as well. But that’s definitely a phenomenon to consider because one of the things that we saw in some early research is that the percentage of students in a fully online degree program was a small percentage that were 18 to 22.
In additional research during the pandemic, we found that number to have increased significantly. And so those are some things where, is that 18 to 22 year old going to bypass campus and go fully online in greater percentages in the future? I think there’s a lot of complexity to what’s going on in the marketplace as a result of the pandemic, but it basically trained I think our potential campus-based audience to learn online as an accepted modality like what we do with mobile banking or watching videos online. 10 years ago we’d say that’s crazy talk.
Jim, those are all great points. Richard, what do you think? Is there an opportunity here for schools to say differentiate based on looking at these new kind of trends for synchronicity? Or are there new products that you think will emerge because of this?
I do. I do think most schools should think carefully about the right direction, the right strategy for online. Because in my mind, if we’re talking about a hundred percent asynchronous online programming, no connection between the campus and the student, then given how crowded and commoditized the market is, given the heft that the big players have in terms of marketing spend, et cetera, I think it’s going to be increasingly difficult for schools, ordinary schools to compete in most fields in that hundred percent asynchronous version of the online market. Whereas what we saw on the previous slide, growing consumer openness to some kind of addition to that asynchronous norm. Now I think nothing can beat the flexibility of asynchronous, but I think consumers increasingly recognize, particularly perhaps those newer to the modality, that that modality is great but it’s not great at everything. And often the kind of transformation immersion you want as a student to get you from A to B, the beginning of the program to the end of the program, the objectives you’re trying to realize might require something that isn’t optimal in a hundred percent asynchronous online environment.
So I think schools need to really take advantage of this openness to saying maybe I want more than just a hundred percent asynchronous online. And whether that’s asynchronous component, whether that’s going to campus now and again, whether it’s some sort of internship, other in-person experience, it could be social reasons, academic reasons. All kinds of value add, pedagogically important dimensions that I think tend to get shortchange in the traditional version of online, that asynchronous norm. And I think it’s in students interest in terms of learning depths and breadths, and I think it’s an institutional interest strategically in most cases because they can’t win in that asynchronous model because it’ll just, I think promote consolidation of enrollment. The biggest schools will increasingly have the best tech, the best marketing, the biggest budgets, the best services, the most programs, and often the best price points.
SNU, Western Governors exemplify that already. How big can they get? We don’t know. Maybe size will start to become a vice rather than a virtue. But so far the bigger they get, seemingly the better they get. So most schools can’t follow that playbook so they really got to take advantage and not buy into the idea that forget campus, forget co-location, forget synchronous in terms of learning, they’ve got to say actually those are key parts of the experience.
So Jim and Richard both mentioned kind of looking towards the broader economy or social experience, and that we’re using a lot more online services. We’re doing this very presentation, we’ve done it all through Zoom or GoToMeeting or whatever technology. Sean, you wrote a really interesting article that I think Christie is going to share in the chat here in a minute around looking to Amazon and some of their strategy with Whole Foods and this sort of disaggregation that they’ve sort of done getting into local communities and markets and stuff and liken that to some of the strategies that are available to higher ed to capitalize on. Can you walk us through that briefly?
Sure, yeah. So that article was a number of years back pre-pandemic and it was inspired by when Amazon acquired Whole Foods and the idea of omnichannel delivery. That you’re going to have this, call it online business, but you can also have in that consumers want a site, a location where they can interact, make a return, get customer service. And that’s something that at Northeastern as an administrator in my former life here, we had really pioneered some things in terms of creating campus locations in Charlotte, Seattle, Silicon Valley, and other regions where our online strategy was married with a lean physical presence where people could, from a few hundred mile radius. People from Atlanta were driving to Charlotte to access a fully online program where they were having a study group at the campus. That’s something I’ve been following for a number of years.
We also saw it actually with really early after the first moves, massively open online courses were launched. This is now about 10 years back. You had these both designed and sponsored and also impromptu study groups and hubs that were emerging so that students could get together in their local area and talk about their coursework and work on things together. And so I think that’s a really important notion and I think Richard highlighted a lot of it, which is just that we’re in kind of a new era now where I think there’s great potential for much more blending. Going back to the U.S. Department of Ed meta study many years ago and a lot of the learning science research since. Often you can have the best of both worlds. Unfortunately the noise which was referenced earlier that’s still in the market is many students had a bad experience a couple years back, whether it was the K-12 level or with corporate training or with higher education in terms of what was the online modality and experience offering.
But there was also this awareness, and in fact we’ve done some surveys of corporate executives showing that they’re now more open to people with online credentials, online courses, more investment in online courses and training and degrees. So while it’s a bit of a mixed bag, I think we’ve now accelerated interest in these online models, but the future is much more of a blending than it is in either-or. And especially pre-pandemic, most colleges and universities, they either broadcast things a hundred percent online or they offer things on campus and the two never met, they were never integrated.
Yeah, it’s interesting you mentioned that connection to campus that we actually asked several questions around that, why a student may want to visit campus or have they visited campus. It was really interesting to see the list of, like you mentioned, study groups and resources, things along those lines, but even less academic things. They wanted to attend a sporting event. They wanted to go to the bookstore. There’s folks really do want to have this connection to place, even if their situation means that learning there isn’t necessarily the right move for them. So how does a learner choose a program? That’s a lot of, like I said, at the core of our conversation in the actual survey, we ask a lot of really broad questions, but some pretty specific ones too on which types of resources the students used, what were they looking at, what do they remember seeing when they were doing their research?
And obviously Google sort of came in a lot of these conversations, people find it really effective to go on Google. But we did find that students are also leveraging these online college search sites. You’re probably familiar with them, everything from U.S. News to such and such degrees.com, that sort of thing students really found that was effective, as well as ads on social media, things along those lines as well. Nearly half of all learners though eventually will land on your website, and I think they’re going to try to engage with your school in some way. About a third of them email. Another third want to pick up the phone and actually call someone. I bet you Vickie might have some things to say about which generation is which in these and who’s using live chat and who’s maybe leaving a voicemail. Those might be some generational divides.
But we do see that the students want to engage with the school, they want to find and learn more information from you directly, but they’re also going to use all these other sources. So it’s important to make sure that your data is up to date and easy to be queried in these ways as well. We also asked some questions around future opportunities for schools. It was interesting, we found that when we asked students, are you likely to want to go back to online learning or even back to the same institution you’re currently at or graduating from? Huge numbers of them said yes, we absolutely do. We want to go back, we want to learn again, we want to finish this bachelor’s degree and go right into our graduate. Or maybe we want to finish the graduate degree and take a certificate or some certification of some sort. And we see the numbers here.
I think it was mentioned earlier that companies are getting more and more accepting of some of these alternative types of credentials, but we’re also finding that students are really interested in them as well. So with that being said, Jim, do you want to tell us a little bit, I know you’ve done some research specifically in this certificate non-degree space. What are your thoughts, do you think we’re likely to continue seeing growth there? Has it kind of stalled out? What do you think?
Actually, thank you very much David. And actually Sean has actually been doing a lot of work in this alternative credential space as well. It’s a really interesting dilemma right now and I just presented just about the number of one year olds to 15 year olds that are going to be coming through our system, and it’s significantly less. There was a report a number of years ago about the demographic cliff out obviously. I feel like it’s actually going to be a little worse than anticipated for these reasons. We can thank millennials for putting micro breweries in every small town in America right now. But at the same point here is as a result of 2008 recession and also they decided to have pets. Just around correlation on the pet industry here, it’s just one of those things that we’re not having as many kids. And so we’ve got an issue around our campus-based delivery system that institutions are going to need to be thinking about other ways of learning, other opportunities here.
One of the things that I’m keeping an eye on is certificates, stackable credentials and whatsoever. But I think the campus can have its cake and eat it too. You can offer these degree-based credentials there, but I think we’ve got to overlay a different type of learning module and they want it too. I know the focus of the research is on the voice of the online customer, but all throughout your report, they want flexibility. Vickie mentioned it earlier as well, flexibility is important. I think page 21 of your report talks about multiple start dates, flexibility. Who doesn’t want flexibility? But if we were to rethink education and build around the learner, the future learner, these are going to be important things and they’re going to separate one institution from another. They want that stackable credential. They want that non-credit.
The big question here is that we struggle as an institution to say, okay, the currency of learning is a credit. That means you’ve learned something. But these non-credit things or these alternative credentials make that translation in terms of that currency doesn’t actually work. But it’s our institutional problem that I think that we’ve got to deal with because these learners of the future, we know a lot about them generationally and they want that flexible learning. They want something they learned that’s very relevant to a degree to mean something as well. And it’s also a pricing strategy for institutions to think about the same type of learning, we just need to count it in a different type of way and create value to this future online learner.
Yeah, I’m going to throw that to Sean, that pricing element. I think in particular this idea that, is the return on investment worth it? I think a lot of the schools will do the strategy where they price these things at the credit hour and that sort of prices them out of the market. But if you go too inexpensive, does it really have value? What are your thoughts on how students think about the return on investment for these types of credentials?
Yeah, that’s a complicated one. We used to do some really advanced pricing studies. The dialogue about student debt is obviously really significant. I think in some of the mainstream in business media, there’s this drumbeat that look at all these master’s degrees, they’re overpriced, they don’t deliver an ROI. For example, higher education is broken, it’s not worth getting your bachelor’s, you should enroll in a certificate instead. And obviously there are some poor quality programs and issues with debt levels, but for the most part, the data that I see, the ROI especially on an online program for a part-time working adult is generally very high, very strong. And yet also on the supplier side, let’s call it with colleges and universities, for the first time in the 25 plus years that there have been accredited online degrees. Beginning just a few years back, we started to see more variation where the same degree is sometimes being offered at different price points with different services available.
So some of the MOOC-based degrees, I’m sure there’s many other examples. The one locally here in Boston that stuck out for me was Boston University. It’s the Boston University MBA, but then there’s the Boston University MBA that’s at a different price point. There’s the traditional kind of high end version and then there’s the low cost, low service version. I think it’s with edX, I could be mistaken. And that was sort of untouched for many, many years where university said, this is the same degree, may or may not be, but generally is the same faculty, the same governance, the same quality standards and the same brand in the end and it’s going to have the same price. And then especially through this experience in the pandemic where people on the order of tens of millions of Americans, hundreds of millions of people worldwide were exposed to some low cost or free online learning from top universities that maybe they never engaged with before.
And all of a sudden, this is just my sense, again, I’m not doing active research on this topic at the moment. I think things are now kind of scrambled. I think we would see that in surveys like these of consumer expectations if we really dug in. There’s a little bit of confusion about, oh, and I would add one more element mixed in here was some of the lawsuits and some of the press around when colleges and universities shifted online and students wanted tuition refunds. There’s this idea percolating that maybe online really should cost less, whereas online was always the same as the campus experience.
A lot of interesting themes to keep track of there. Vickie, I want to come back to this idea that there’s an opportunity for these students to come back to the school. I know there are some ideas there about how do you engage with someone through their whole career. I’m particularly interested too in how do we prime the student for this? How do we let them know that yeah, you’re getting your MBA today but maybe you want to come back for a leadership certificate in 10 years or something. What are your thoughts on this strategy over time?
Dr. Vickie Cook:
Well, there hasn’t been a lot of good research done in the area of alumni and working with the alumni associations with online learners. There was something out of the University of Wisconsin a few years ago, but really thinking about how we assist our students to become lifelong learners throughout their career in higher education. So thinking about from that undergrad experience to non-credit certificates such as Jim talked about into a master’s degree program like Sean discussed. And then what happens after that? If you have your master’s degree, you’re not really looking for a doctorate perhaps in your field. Most people are looking for continued learning. So in today with technology advancing as fast as it does, people have to stay up to date. They need that partnership with an institution where they can go back and pull those particular pieces that they need when they need them. Kind of this just in time learning idea that we’ve talked about for years but now is even more important in today’s society.
Yeah, great points. So let’s move along to our last section here around affordability. I think that’s come up a little bit in some of our answers and dialogue back and forth, but we wanted to address it a little bit more directly. So we did ask which of the following statements around tuition kind of most closely resonated with you. We asked about cost in a lot of different ways. How important is cost to you? How important is the price of your degree? Some of those things. This one is particularly interesting to me because a significant amount of students are not going to pick the cheapest program in the market. We see something like 28 to 30% hovering there that I picked the lowest cost program. Obviously that’s not necessarily what folks want to feel like they went to the discount program. I think we were hinting at this earlier with some of these online programs maybe feeling lesser than. I think that might be an additional signal for them.
But that being said, cost is very important. So a lot of students are telling us that they really have to find this mix of the program that feels right to me and has the right kind of amount of program elements that’s going to hit me, it’s going to give me the most bang for my buck. And we’ve seen that number shift over time. But generally folks are very cost conscious in the market today. We did see when we asked some more specific questions around discounting, something like a quarter of them did receive some sort of discount. We did see one out of five getting a scholarship. We’re still seeing schools do things around free textbooks. I’m even seeing programs in the market that are no textbooks. All the information you need is going to be held and contained within the tool. I wonder if that’ll be a trend moving forward.
We’re also seeing a handful of schools I think responding to the notion in the market that the increases on the cost for education are skyrocketing, doing these locked in tuition rates. And so there’s kind of signaling that this is the price you’re going to pay, you’re not going to get a big increase in year or two out. We also asked students, what are the main reasons you’ll not be using your tuition benefits? So we did ask a lot of folks, do you have tuition benefits in place? And a surprising amount of them have the tuition benefit but aren’t using it. This is a real mystery to me. I’m not one to turn away free money, but I think a lot of students kind of informed us like, hey, it’s not free money. There’s cost associated with it, whether it’s continuing to work at the company or maybe there’s a cost to actually figuring out the tuition reimbursement process.
Maybe it’s just overly complicated or maybe I’m kind of concerned or maybe I’m learning something that isn’t directly related to my career because I’m more going diagonal into a new field and I don’t want my employer to know it. But this is a really surprising one for us, especially because Wiley, we actually have a tuition benefits management platform that we offer. And so it’s something that’s particularly close to home here for us. I’m curious, Vickie, this idea of tuition reimbursement or any sort of employer support, what are you guys seeing thematically? Are those going away because of the recession? Do we still see students using them? What are your thoughts on them?
Dr. Vickie Cook:
Yeah, we still do see students using them. We actually see more employers right now reaching out to us about specific programming or credentialing. Just had a fairly large group of technology employers come in a couple of weeks ago, met with faculty and students. They’re looking to actually create more partnerships. Of course they’re looking for specific outcomes for that. They are looking for employees in particular fields and they want them to learn or to receive certification in specific ways. I think the higher education institutions that are willing to reach out to employers and engage in those discussions and conversations are better able then to meet the students needs when they say I can get tuition reimbursement for this, this, and this. The other issue that you brought up, David, about perhaps I’m going to change fields and I don’t want my employer to know so I won’t use those benefits.
I think that’s something that students do struggle with in how do they get employers to allow them to learn something outside of the field that they’re in. I don’t know that that’s ever going to go away because employers want certain outcomes and want to be able to grow their employees from within, and that doesn’t happen if they feel like they are pushing them to a new industry.
Yeah, that’s such a fascinating point. The only counterpoint I’d bring to that is we’re really seeing a lot of companies out there, especially for lower wage, hourly type jobs, seeing tuition reimbursement as a retention strategy. We’re seeing famously like Starbucks and Amazon and Walmart and some of these is seeing it as a benefit and it’s like if I can keep someone around while they’re completing their bachelors, they’ll stay with my company for another couple of years. That might have a benefit over having higher turnover. Sean, I’m curious over at Northeastern, there’s different models out there like Vickie was saying, right? Is it getting tuition reimbursement for finishing your bachelor’s in liberal arts or is it more, hey, I need 10 people that know agile project management, right? What’s the divide there? Is it really targeted, the tuition reimbursement or is it a little bit broader? What do you guys see?
Out in the marketplace?
Okay. Yeah, I just want to clarify. We were talking about enrollment trends something within Northeastern. My sense is that, and we have done some interviewing and surveying on this, there’s a distinction to be made between educational benefits and education as a benefit and investment in up scaling. We’re getting a little bit of both out there. So remarkably, the 20 year trend was a down trend where in like 2002 or so, 70% of employers offered tuition assistance and that had dropped to about 50% in 2018 or 2019. And that’s according to SHRM’s data, the Society for Human Resource Management, which is one of the only groups historically, this is beginning to change, that tracks that. Employers don’t report on this. There’s not really any other surveys or any government data of any sort on investment in training or educational benefits. So you have to look at these spot surveys. There was actually a decline.
What was happening very subtly was employers with a fixed benefit budget were starting to invest more, given some of the demographics in paying off people’s student loans as they came in rather than looking at their 30, 40, 50 year old workers who needed to complete their bachelor’s degree let’s say. And then entering the pandemic, there was this growing popularity of educational benefits and some new companies and business models that came about. And funny thing happened during the pandemic, which is that employers accelerated their investment in their people and in training to support retention and to support competitiveness given all the change that was going on and the fact that they had to develop culture. We actually did a report on this. So now there’s more investment that’s happening, but it varies tremendously in terms of is it so that you can upscale your workers and you have them getting a certificate at a university or having them do a session with a training provider versus.
And this is extremely common I would say, and it has grown versus the trend five or 10 years ago, more of a blanket benefit where it does not matter what it’s about. I think Amazon and others are on the record about this in terms of this is not just for if you stay working here or you’re going to move into a leadership role in a warehouse or something to that effect, you can pursue anything you want. I think that even went back to the ASU Starbucks partnership many years ago as an example. But if you’re a college or university or even if you’re a professional, a student, I think it’s important to understand what will the employers support and why. What’s their goal that they’re looking for in it?
Yeah, fascinating stuff. We actually work with a number of financial institutions and different companies around the world to help as almost a staffing agency to recruit students and train them up in some of these themes as that investment that you’re talking about is really interesting stuff. Let’s go ahead. We’ve sort of hit the end of our data part of the conversation. I’m looking here at some of the questions. We’ve already got a handful here that I’m going to throw to the group and kind of manage this through the last 10 minutes or so here. I did want to do a quick plug. Once again, that you can put your questions into the chat feature. For comments, you go to chat. But for questions, please put them in the questions channel and we’ll hopefully be able to address a couple of those. And then of course there’s a number of handouts and then links to articles and stuff that we’ve provided here.
Excited to see you folks download those and then feel free to engage with us on social media too and ask us follow up questions. I think all of us are willing to continue on in these conversations. One question, this is going to be a bit of a jump ball for everyone here, but there was, I’m going to say a theme on a handful of questions saying either applauding or critiquing potentially online learning as a way to address challenges around diversity, equity, and inclusion. So there was a couple questions that just by the framing, you could understand that maybe they thought there was some risks there, others that were a little bit more positive leading. So I’m curious for the group, what are your thoughts on online learning and its place with DE&I initiatives in institutions?
Well, my take would be that it’s complicated. So historically, online has been disproportionately associated with certain underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, particularly African Americans, but the opposite when it came to, say Hispanics. Historically, underrepresented in online and perhaps more skeptical of it for various reasons. So I think with any modality, there’s no simple cause and effect. Online is itself too diverse and interacts with so many other variables that it’s not going to guarantee one outcome or another. But there is certainly a risk that online as a second choice, second chance modality has a greater responsibility to think about DEI because they’re going to get more students in that category. As online mainstreams, maybe that will ease. I think it’s healthy that we’ll probably see more diversification around this word online so it isn’t simply a hundred percent asynchronous.
With all the downsides as well as the upsides, that can very much trip up a less academically prepared, less social capital DEI type student versus something that does think about the benefits of social interaction, of team building, of interaction that is synchronous rather than asynchronous. And I think all of that’s going to help online do a better job on the DEI front than perhaps the traditional version.
I think there’s sort of challenges inside and outside of the classroom too for this. I know that the pandemic brought a lot of that to bear. I know that we spoke to a lot of schools that were investing in helping students pay for their online, like their internet connection. That was a challenge. I think a lot of us might take some of that stuff for granted, that someone has a fast computer and that they can do a Zoom session online or those sorts of things. Especially if you think about some of these schools that are maybe in more rural places. I think those are sort of challenges. We actually address some of this stuff in a DE&I article that we wrote. I think we’ll get Christie or someone to post a link to that. We ourselves are kind of grappling with those questions and finding ways that we can engage more with students in that way. Anybody else have a response to that one or anything you guys want to add?
Dr. Vickie Cook:
Yes, I’d like to add David, when we think about DEI, I think it’s important that we think about students with disabilities and we think about the inclusiveness of making sure that all digital content is accessible. While that has been an ongoing effort over the last few years, it is certainly brought to the forefront during the pandemic. And not only the accessibility component from the institutional component, but just like you talked about, providing internet access. Sometimes students who were on college campuses then found themselves without access to specific computer equipment or screen readers, that type of thing that assisted them with their work. Also, for our students for whom English is not their first language, when we think about the inclusivity that we need to be able to utilize with using universal design approaches for our coursework, making sure that we’re not making cultural assumptions about the content that we’re producing. And then being able to have the materials that students for whom English is not their first language, can appropriately interact with the content multiple times to be able to move their learning forward in particular fields of study that they’re in.
Yeah, no, I think that’s all great. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for the technology to help level that playing field, but I think you’re absolutely right Vickie. If you don’t bake it into your design, that’s not something that you actively address and kind of readdress and reevaluate over time, that you run the risk of potentially excluding some folks from the conversation. I think that’s really well said. Did anybody else have anything to add to that one? No? This is one that’s a tricky one and I’m curious to see if anyone kind of jumps at the opportunity to answer this, but it was question around something that we’ve seen too. How do you guarantee instructors are really engaging with students? I think often we get the question in the other way, how do we make sure that students are really engaging with the material online? But this was one more directed at the instructors. Anyone brave enough to kind of address that one?
Dr. Vickie Cook:
Well, I’ll say good faculty development, a solid teaching and learning center at your institution, peer review that’s baked into the tenure process at your institution. Good faculty governance in this area is important. And honestly, rethinking what we think of as excellence in teaching because we’re in a different era than we were three years ago and how we reconsider what it means to be an engaged and highly interactive faculty member. And so I think that’s an institutional question that has to be addressed by faculty committees. And then I would not at all encourage anyone to overlook what we do with our adjunct faculty and how we appropriately train and support our adjunct faculty. I think in today’s era it’s been important to have faculty support for a long time, but in today’s era it’s even more important as we think about that faculty member is the first point of contact for the student in really having a positive experience on our campuses.
Yeah, I think that’s really well said. Especially that idea of what does it mean to be engaged faculty I think is something that’s really challenging. I know when we think about particular discipline on a discipline level, ones that are really hard to attract faculty, let’s say nursing or accounting or some of these other things. I think opening up what it means to be connected to the campus can really help some institutions that maybe aren’t in the most desirable location or location where there’s an abundance of folks that they can tap. I’m scanning through here. I think we’ve actually hit a lot of these questions. We’ve done a pretty thorough job. I’m curious if anyone else has any thoughts that they wanted to add or any recent work they want to plug before we shut things down.
If this isn’t too miscellaneous, this whole dialogue and the last couple questions has me thinking about might we agree that eventually we’ll reach some sort of a point and I wonder how soon it is that we’re no longer talking about online as something distinct. Is that five years? Is that 20 years? I do think that’s coming in a way that we wouldn’t have imagined a while back as veterans of looking at this, but there’s some kind of a crossover point near, I think. I’m not saying it’s going to be in 18 months, but that all of this is interwoven, right? The point about faculty development, it’s all intertwined in some ways.
I’d like to add that as we move forward, we’ve got to get a little bit more student centered in terms of this. Universities in the past have had pretty much all the power. I think that power is shifting to this new online learner, this new adult learner who is very complicated and they’re very, very savvy. And some of the things that we were talking about, what would get them there in price and promotion and how do they enter our system? We’ve got to rethink of our systems and that’s going to be the big thing coming up. We’ve lost a lot of students during the pandemic. Two to one were leaving colleges and universities and the campus-based format and that hasn’t fully recovered there. But we’ve got to understand our students, we’ve got to build systems around them, we’ve got to greet them. They’re much more complicated. I think we’re still dealing with a lot of legacy systems.
I think that’s how the institutions that are going to win and lose this in this slightly shrinking market for degree-based students, that’s how the winners and loser are going to be made. But the other side of the coin here is that we have alternative streams of learning that these new complex learners want and that’s maybe a stackable credential. That’s maybe certificate-based education and other things like that. I think we’ve got to really rethink our offering there.
Yeah, there’s a lot of threats and opportunities on the table. Yeah, absolutely.
Dr. Vickie Cook:
I’d like to piggyback on Sean and Jim here and say that if we didn’t mention the fact that generation alpha is now 10 years old and will be entering higher education at seven to eight years and will expect a totally different experience because these are individuals who have been totally immersed in technology, many of which may have started kindergarten on Zoom. And so they are going to have a whole different view of what online learning means and it will not be a distinctive. It will be mainstream part of what they expect and they will expect their higher education institutions to not just do it well, but to do it with excellence with them at the center. So rethinking what we’re doing now is important to be able to, in seven or eight years, I don’t know if Sean, that will be the absolute point where everything changes, but things will change when this group of students enters higher education.
But I’d still stress that, and I know we all agree on this, but it’s going to be the good pedagogy that wins out. I think it’s really dangerous, some schools get easily distracted and just think it’s about the technology when really it’s about the design. And I think the consumer enthusiasm, and we’ve heard for decades this generation is going to change things and they’ve always been a bit more conservative and complicated and less ready than we’ve anticipated. So I suspect that will keep happening. But I do think the underlying trajectory is certainly more online, more sophistication, but it’s going to be pedagogy that makes or breaks it.
Yeah, well said. Well, I think that’s a great place to end things. I wanted to really thank all of you for joining us, Jim, Sean, Vickie, Richard. I really enjoyed this conversation. Maybe we can make it a more regular thing because I think I learned a lot today and I hope the folks listening at home did as well. One last plug, please go ahead and download that Voice of the Online Learner survey. I think there’s a lot of great insights in there and keep an eye out for some of our other projects on the horizon. I think they answer a lot of the questions that you folks have been asking. Anything that you want to add, Shandi to close us out?
Nope. We will leave the session here open for a few minutes to give you a chance to download those, and otherwise we’ll say have a great afternoon.
Thank you. Bye.