Grow Your Institution with Online Student Enrollment:

with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Tony Huffman | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 087

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Grow Your Institution with Online Student Enrollment

Changing Higher Ed Podcast with Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Tony Huffman

Grow Your Institution with Online Student Enrollment


Online student enrollment can’t be ignored if you want to grow your institution and prepare for the enrollment cliff. A large part of the transformation of higher education has been online. The late 1990s marked the shift from correspondence courses to the first online courses. The pandemic has accelerated this adoption, but other factors are also huge in this emergence and need to be considered by higher education leaders.

Emerging Trends in Higher Education Enrollment

One of the major trends in student enrollment is the demographic of online students, which has completely changed from 25 years ago. Millennials, who are now around 40 years old, are today’s key consumers of online learning.

Additionally, the university and college enrollment decline has created a different kind of demand, which is now coming from adult students. There are short-term and longer-term direction factors at play in this trend. The shorter-term is based on the economy – as demand from adult students wanes in the recovering job market, this pendulum is shifting back which may lead to lower student demand. The longer-term trend is based on the enrollment cliff that is seeing a shrinking number of traditional students enrolling in higher education for the first time.

Another developing trend that accelerated because of COVID-19 is the increasing acceptance and popularity of online education. The supply of online programs is dramatically increasing. has cataloged the number of programs in accredited post-secondary institutions. In January 2018, there were roughly 14,000 online programs; that number has doubled to 28,000 in January 2021, and another 2,000 programs have been added during the first four months of 2021. Based on this growth curve, the total number of online degree programs will top 60,000 by 2024.

This growth will increase competition for a static or shrinking group of students. And even when the market stabilizes, higher education will not be back at full enrollment. This will be primarily true for undergraduate enrollment.

Growing Enrollment in Adult Students

When employers have difficulty hiring, they often offer tuition reimbursement plans. With the current shortage of workers, many businesses may promote these types of plans to potential candidates, including most recently Walmart paying for employees’ education. Additionally, more progressive schools like Arizona State are working with companies to develop and provide tuition reimbursement education.

To shift to a focus on working adults, higher education needs to increase its online efforts. To survive or get ahead, higher education institutions will need to appeal to adult learners and graduate enrollment because the demographic cliff of available high school graduates is shrinking. To do this, institutions need to create and improve online offerings, both in relation to graduate degree programs as well as shorter certificate programs and professional development offerings.

Utilizing Online Student Enrollment Technology

Additionally, higher education needs to realize that successfully recruiting and enrolling adult students who are working differs from recruiting and enrolling traditional students. Reaching an adult student requires interacting with them when and where they want to, which often means utilizing mobile device technology. Schools will need to retool their recruiting and admission functions to meet the needs of the adult learner.

Many enrollment processes currently in use were developed 25 years ago, which supported an entirely different generation. Now everything is all about the phone. The schools that have been cutting edge in relation to recruiting and enrolling the online student have developed this new process using technology.

One of the leaders is Perdia Education, which helps higher education institutions change their enrollment process for the 21st century. The company provides risk-free incremental students that institutions otherwise wouldn’t have. This involves building out the mobile enrollment solution, EMMA, and working as an extension of the university through identifying students who are sourced from Perdia’s online education directory, GetEducated.

EMMA is a patent-pending mobile enrollment solution that utilizes AI. The student downloads this to their mobile device and it becomes the hub for all communications. This app serves the student in a variety of ways and ultimately leads to the creation of a package that is ready for an admission decision. EMMA has proven to be a fresh step forward that leads to enrollment.

EMMA has been proven to outperform the best practices that are currently employed. In a recent study of 2020 enrollment data, Perdia found that EMMA outperformed the leading university’s enrollment solution by 26%, increasing the rate of inquiry to enrollment. Additionally, this study found that using EMMA reduced enrollment costs for the institution.

Educational Value

The enrollment conundrum also includes the need to create educational value and boost the ROI for students. Institutions must examine who they’ve been enrolling for the past 150 years to assess how (and how far) that landscape has changed. Can the institution shift to meet the 21st century emerging needs – with the industry evolving at a speed not seen before, institutions must prepare for and evolve from the top down, beginning with the president.

Resources need to be focused on the adult learner so they can earn or finish their undergraduate degree, go for a graduate degree, or retool their careers. With employees moving across industries, there is a market for higher education institutions to create programs that help students make the transition between industries.

Technology will continue to be crucial, whether that’s creating a technological pathway from recruitment and enrollment to virtual graduations. This includes online courses and events, as well as e-textbooks. This also includes seamlessly moving from one device to another in accessing coursework throughout the day. COVID has accelerated these changes. This allows flexibility to fit education in the student’s daily life so they can enjoy the experience and earn the degree.

Role of the Board

If everyone isn’t rowing in the same direction based on the vision set out by the board and the president, the institution goes in circles. However, colleges and universities will struggle with this because everything at most institutions was built in the previous decade or previous century. There will be strong currents encountered when moving outside that paradigm, such as individuals who are nearing retirement who do not want to change. Even if there is strong support at the C-Suite level, this effort needs buy-in throughout the organization to be effective.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Institutions need to be aware of the enrollment cliff and retool to meet the needs of the adult student. These needs differ from the traditional student who is coming straight from high school.
  • Higher education institutions need to reorganize to meet these students’ needs. That begins at the president’s office and continues throughout the institution with resources being allocated to support the development of pathways and programs for these students.
  • These efforts need to have the support of the Board of Trustees, the president, and top administrative leaders, as well as buy-in throughout the institution.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides governance consulting; strategic planning, implementation, and change management consulting, and accreditation consulting for higher ed institutions. 


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