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Online education has changed higher-ed landscape, professor says

GRAND FORKS — A higher education crisis is coming, according to Jeff Holm, the University of North Dakota’s vice provost for online education and strategic planning.

As enrollments dip across most colleges and high school graduation rates level out, there may be fewer students going to college in the coming years, which will likely lead to the closure of campuses across the country. Holm predicts 2026 will be a tipping point for schools.

“How do we make sure we’re doing the right things so that when the crisis time really hits, we can survive it?” Holm said. “I do think, for us, it means competing in the national online market.”

Online education has changed the landscape of higher education, Holm said. Schools like Arizona State University, Purdue, Penn State and Southern New Hampshire University seemingly took over the online higher education world by pumping tens of millions of dollars into advertising across the country and pulling in thousands of students from all corners of the country to their campuses.

For years, higher education was the definition of a cottage industry, Holm said. Particular students would go to a university for a particular program, usually somewhere nearby. Schools had to be competitive with the universities in their region. Now, the online world has changed that.

“No longer can you be content to compete for students and draw students and attract students from your local region,” Holm said.

Universities like ASU and Penn State also have been able to use their online numbers to drive up their on-campus numbers. Most recent enrollment data available on the Arizona State website shows a steep growth in enrollment since 2012. In 2012 there were more than 73,300 students enrolled in the system’s campuses. In 2016, that number jumped to more than 98,000. Similar data follows at Penn State and Purdue, Holm said.

While schools like Arizona State are taking over the online higher education world, there were only 63 students from North Dakota enrolled in ASU’s online program in spring 2019, according to an ASU representative. While that number appears low, Holm said ASU is still competing with UND and other North Dakota schools. The university is able to pull data about where applicants go to school if they don’t attend UND. Holm said Arizona State has begun to climb the ladder, recently making it into the top 20 choices for UND applicants.

“They’re not only drawing online, but all those ads just make students, kids, young adults more knowledgeable and aware of the schools in general,” he said. “They’re using their online (programs) to increase on-campus enrollments.”

Holm said the changing pace of online education is also having an effect on the on-campus world. The changes will likely affect campuses in sparsely populated areas, where universities can’t rely on a large population from which to draw students.

'When you're online, you don't have to deal with the winters'

While it seems Arizona State and Southern New Hampshire University are ruling the online market, Holm said there’s still room for more schools in the market.

To break into the market, the North Dakota University System needs to compete online nationally with its own unique programs.

Holm said there are three keys to competing nationally.

First, getting the university's name out there. While UND may not have the marketing budget of ASU, UND has spent approximately $3.7 million in the last two years on its marketing division. This includes rolling out a new mobile-friendly website with an online program finder.

Another important aspect is marketing what makes North Dakota attractive to people who do not know much about the state. Holm said the university has to determine how to make the entire program appealing by highlighting what makes the state unique and inviting.

“You can talk about the idea, whether it’s true or not, of the rugged individualism and the cowboy country and Native American influence, but when you’re online you don’t have to deal with the winters,” Holm said.

Finally, Holm said it is important to highlight the programs of the university and what makes each one unique.

“One, you have to have programs that people want, but you also have to build on what you do well,” Holm said. “Third, and this might be the most important one, you have to have a ladder for people to climb.”

For example, students in UND’s online engineering program can earn everything from a certificate to a doctoral degree.

“Once you’re in that system you wouldn’t really have to leave that system,” he said, noting UND needs to continue to grow other online programs in nursing, aerospace and public health. Those are all unique and important programs to the university that it can market to prospective students across the country, he added.

“It’s to their advantage and our advantage that they’re able to get all of their needs met through us.”