The case for expanding online programs to stay afloat

For U.S. colleges and universities, could online learning and digital course materials be a pathway to survival and sustainability?

More than 100 not-for-profit higher education institutions have closed between 2016 and 2023. Bain & Co. reports that there are nearly 300 institutions  that are in precarious financial positions. They further project that the number will soon reach 495, exceeding the number before the pandemic hit.

Closures happen for many reasons but they generally involve declining student enrollment. The past decade has seen a near-steady decline in college enrollment. College enrollment has fallen by more than one million in the two years between spring 2020 and spring 2022 alone.   In addition, colleges struggle to retain students or have low graduation rates.

These declines lead to diminishing tuition dollars, a main source of revenue for many colleges. A significant drop in student enrollment can strain a college's finances and make it difficult to cover operating expenses.

What is driving students away from college?

The ongoing confusion around student loan forgiveness is not helping either. Among those who attend college, nearly three-quarters take out a student loan. The same Propeller Insights survey reported that 48% of respondents say it will impact their interest in pursuing a college degree.

  • Opportunity Cost: In the U.S. hourly wage hikes attract would-be students to work instead of completing their degrees. Wages at the bottom of the economy have increased dramatically, making minimum-wage jobs especially appealing to young people as an alternative to college.

How will expanding online programs attract more students

Colleges should prioritize digitization to attract and retain students – from offering online courses to giving students access to digital course materials.

  • Online programs lower the cost barrier. For an increasing number of students, online learning is the most feasible way to earn a degree. Some even believe it will be the only way to earn a degree – about 36% of the respondents in the Propeller Insights survey said that required in-person instruction will quickly become obsolete.
44% of the respondents believe that physical textbooks will be completely phased out and replaced by digital textbooks.

Not only does tuition tend to be lower, but many additional expenses, such as transportation and course materials, are significantly lower in online programs. The same Propeller Insights survey found that 44% of the respondents believe that physical textbooks will be completely phased out and replaced by digital textbooks.

  • Online programs enable students to earn while studying. Online courses are more attractive to nontraditional students because of their flexibility and accessibility. Students can work while they study, and, therefore, won’t have to give up an income during their prime working years. The experience  earned while they are in college can also increase their base pay requirement after they graduate.

  • Online programs derisk the value of a degree. Not only do online programs increase the ROI of a degree by lowering its cost, but most online programs are also powered by innovative technology that help increase a student’s likelihood of completing their degree. Data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that those with a degree significantly outearn those without one.

Some institutions have already taken action. In California, just 15 percent of college classes were fully remote before the pandemic. Now, 65 percent of classes are online. The Colorado Community College System is currently rolling out Colorado Online, a platform that will allow community college students across the state to take online courses at different institutions in the system.

At Northern Virginia Community College, online enrollment increased by more than 10% between 2021 and 2022. For the first time in the 42 years they have been offering online courses, students enrolled in an online course now make up more than a quarter of NVCC’s entire student population. 

As colleges look to expand online programs, there is an increasing need to supply course materials quickly, flexibly and affordably.

Take for instance, South Piedmont Community College, where half of the student population are adult learners. In 2021, SPCC launched Learning Reimagined, a program that delivers courses in different modalities to meet the diverse needs of their student population. SPCC partnered with BibliU  to ensure students’ course materials are affordable and accessible from anywhere, at any time.

Through BibliU’s Universal Learning, more than 9 out of 10 students at SPCC now access their course materials within days of the semester starting–an indicator of improved student outcomes and retention.

About Propeller Insights / Methodology

Propeller Insights is a full-service market research firm based in Los Angeles. Using quantitative and qualitative methodologies to measure and analyze marketplace and consumer opinions, they work extensively across industries such as travel, brand intelligence, entertainment/media, retail, and consumer packaged goods. 

Propeller Insights strives to achieve statistically significant samples that meet the minimum industry standard of a 95 percent confidence level and a 5 percent margin of error, based on the population being represented for all online quantitative surveys. Propeller works with the leading online sample providers, and the sources they use are based on the project requirements/target, sample size, and incidence rate.

 Qualitative surveys are based on the geographic relevance of the product or service being studied and target availability. Its moderators’ primary objective is to always spark meaningful conversation and draw out as much insight from each individual participant so that our clients are able to see as many perspectives as possible.

 A Propeller omnibus survey has fixed audience sizes among the general population. For the purpose of this survey, respondents were between the ages of 18 and 24 years old. Results from August 2023.

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