On May 7, Digital Media Solutions® (DMS) joined LeadsCouncil for the latest LeadsCouncil Leadership Series webinar, “From Crisis Comes Opportunity: Higher Ed During & After COVID-19.” During this virtual presentation, higher education industry leaders Cliff Libby, EVP & General Manager of Education at DMS and Michael Tolmie, Managing Director, Marketing at National Education Partners, spoke with moderator Rustam Irani, VP of Growth & Strategy at DMS, about the impact COVID-19 has had on the higher education industry. In this article, we’ll dive into the webinar’s top three takeaways for higher education marketers.
The Shift Toward Online Learning Is Likely To Continue Beyond The Pandemic
Cliff Libby and the DMS Education team analyzed hundreds of thousands of higher education inquiries from the second half of March 2020 and the entire month of April 2020, compared to the same periods in 2019, to better understand the impact of the coronavirus on prospective student interest. Inquiries for campus-based programs were down 25% year over year (YOY) in late March, and were 16% lower in April 2020, compared to April 2019. Conversely, inquiries for online programs were 20% higher YOY in late March 2020 and 10% higher in April 2020, compared to April 2019. Libby attributed this shift to uncertainty about when campuses would re-open. Libby speculated that “[Education] will never be the same after this,” noting that with many elementary, middle and high schools across the country closed, millions of younger American students in grades K-12 are now gaining exposure to online learning, positioning them for greater comfort with online higher education programs down the road.
Michael Tomie agreed, noting that schools that had an existing strong online presence, like Northcentral University, were well-positioned for the transition to remote learning, while others that did not previously offer online programs faced significant challenges. Tomie recommended that higher education institutions carefully review their technology stacks to determine if they are well-suited for the current and projected future online growth.
Prospective Students’ Program Areas Of Interest Have Evolved
In addition to shifts in interest for learning format, Libby noted program area of interest trends have also evolved recently. According to DMS Education data, for online programs, interest in homeland security was 104% higher in late March YOY, and 73% higher in April 2020, compared to April 2019. Psychology program interest was 34% higher in late March YOY, and was up 30% in April YOY, while computer science program interest was 20% higher in late March YOY and 27% higher this April compared to last year, spurring Libby to speculate that the increased reliance on technology to connect people during social distancing could be fueling these interest spikes.
Tolmie noted similar trends, sharing that interest in information technology programs, particularly shorter bootcamp-style programs that can often be completed in six months, has scaled significantly. Libby speculated that traditional four-year degrees may eventually be viewed more as a luxury, noting that institutions may need to adapt program length for evolving student needs.
Prospective Students Are Searching For Education Options In Different Ways And On Different Media Channels
According to DMS Education data, the ways in which prospective students researched higher education programs was impacted by coronavirus. In late March, Libby noted, website traffic for higher education institutions was down 38% YOY, while prospective student inquiries driven by social media were up 66% YOY. Inquiries driven by higher education affiliate partners were up 21% in late March YOY, prompting Libby to speculate that the dip in website traffic likely drove schools to supplement inquiry volume with affiliate-generated leads. In April, the YOY decline in website traffic was less significant than March, at 12%, while the YOY increase for social media-driven inquiries was even higher, at 75%. Tolmie added that searches for “gap year” surged significantly in recent months, as graduating high school seniors weigh various options for the fall. Higher education marketers should continue to monitor media channel trends and determine which channels provide the highest ROI, especially as many enrollment marketers face tightening budgets.
Although the immediate future in the world of higher education remains uncertain, the “new normal” – whatever and whenever it is – will likely be a continuation of current evolutions in higher education, including a long-term shift to online learning. Institutions that are able to adapt should be well-positioned to turn crisis into opportunity.
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