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Predictions Amidst Uncertainty: Fall 2020 Higher Education Outlook

April 10, 2020 Charlene Sterphone

The spread of coronavirus and subsequent efforts to slow the pandemic have impacted nearly every aspect of life in America and have taken a significant toll on the world of higher education. Last month, colleges and universities en masse cancelled events and sports and ultimately shut down campuses, prompting quick transitions from campus-based programs to online formats. With uncertainty abounding regarding when the pandemic will subside, many look ahead to fall 2020 as the soonest that the higher education landscape may return to some semblance of normalcy - but what will the “new normal” look like for American higher education? In this article, we’ll dive into three predictions for the fall 2020 higher education landscape.

Prediction #1: Online Program Interest And Enrollment Will Continue To Flourish

Shutterstock_360420464 Student studying and writing notes in a notebook sitting at a desk at home

According to the 2020 Report On The State Of Online Vs. Campus-Based Higher Education Demand, the stage had been set for significant online program growth long before the coronavirus hit American shores, with interest in online programs growing for the past three years. In fact, online programs drove the most higher education interest and resulted in the most conversions in 2019, representing 61.5% of all inquiries and 59.4% of all conversions. With more higher education institutions than ever offering their courses online, traditional students concerned about living in close quarters or looking to save money by not paying for room and board later this year will have abundant online options. 

And with unemployment rates reaching record highs due to the economic downturn associated with the pandemic, a spike in non-traditional student enrollment is likely, as adults seek out new skill sets, certifications or degrees in attempts to protect their jobs or differentiate themselves from pools of job applicants. Since online programs can minimize the impact to family life, compared to returning to school for campus-based programs, online learning is a popular choice for many non-traditional adult learners.

Prediction #2: Recruitment Strategies Must Be Adapted To A Virtual World Amidst Increased Competition

Shutterstock_749570365 Businesswoman making video call to business partner using laptop. Close-up rear view of young woman having discussion with corporate client. Remote job interview, consultation, human resources concept

As schools, like the University of California, relax admissions requirements and many higher education institutions plan to accept a higher percentage of students for fall 2020 due to uncertain yields, the competition for students is expected to be fierce, so ensuring recruitment efforts are as fruitful as possible will become mission critical. With campuses shut down and in-person visits with admissions staff not possible for the foreseeable future, schools that relied heavily on campus events to generate interest must adapt to digital-focused recruitment strategies. Previously supplemental tools, like virtual campus tours and events, virtual meetups with student ambassadors and video calls with admissions representatives, will become primary methods of helping prospective students make enrollment decisions. 

These digital recruiting tools should be coupled with a renewed assessment of which media channels are performing best in the current quarantine environment. According to data from Sparkroom, a lead management platform that processes more than 400,000 higher education inquiries per month, traffic to higher education institution websites for campus-based programs was 62.3% lower in the second half of March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, while inquiries generated via social media increased by 56.4% for campus-based programs and 73.7% for online programs.

Prediction #3: On-Campus Student Bodies For The Fall 2020 Semester Will Be Less Diverse

Shutterstock_703779841 Focused young African female college student working on a laptop on some stairs on campus preparing for an exam

With international travel restricted, enrollment from foreign students, who typically made up 5% of the sector’s total enrollment, will likely decrease significantly or completely. And American students may be less likely to travel for school, too. According to a survey of nearly 7,000 students and parents, 16% of students “said they were considering an option closer to home than their original first choice,” likely leading to further decreased geographic diversity on campuses. With concerns mounting for students and parents regarding the ability to pay for college and repay loans, less economically advantaged (and often more ethnically and racially diverse) students may choose to defer or attend courses online to reduce costs.

Although the future remains uncertain, the news for higher education institutions isn’t grim. Many schools that had not previously offered online courses have already pivoted, shifting quickly to online delivery. With additional time to prepare, and assess what has worked and what hasn’t for online delivery, colleges and universities will have the opportunity to make changes for the fall semester. And institutions that had previously offered online programs will have additional opportunities to scale as the higher education market continues to evolve.

Are You Looking To Connect With Prospective High-Intent College Students At Scale?

DMS EducationTM is a thought leader in education and martech-enabled digital media distribution. Through our support of traditional and for-profit colleges, trade schools, community colleges, boot campus, continuing education providers, OPMs and agencies, we have seen it all. Led by industry veterans and dating back to our founding in 2002, DMS Education provides predictable, scalable and reliable education marketing.

Contact DMS

About the Author

Charlene Sterphone

Charlene Sterphone, Director of Marketing A focused and highly motivated creative thinker, Charlene Sterphone develops, executes and reports on strategic marketing programs surrounding lead generation, paid search, email, social media, mobile targeting, SEO and compliance as Director of Marketing for Digital Media Solutions (DMS). Throughout her diversified marketing career, Charlene has spent time in both the agency and direct corporate and start-up settings, including positions at Sparkroom, Education Dynamics and CBS Corporation, where she has seen success with digital and traditional marketing campaigns. As an analytical marketer, Charlene enjoys discovering new and innovative tools and techniques and using them to drive growth.

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