IMS Global: Higher education, traditionally, has not considered online learning as effective as the classroom experience. Do you find that perception still prevalent? How quickly do you think it's changing?
GP: Online education should be as rigorous as on-campus education, the curriculum should be the same. The expectations of students should be the same. One of the advantages is that with an online environment, you can serve a much larger audience but not sacrifice quality or rigor. Therefore, you don't have to be as limiting on the students you admit. The regional accrediting bodies have become more receptive and so are the professional accrediting bodies. They look at online education as an alternative delivery method and what they want to know is that the students have access to the resources that are similar to those that the students have on campus. One of our knowledge partners went through professional accreditation for a program recently, and what the accrediting body found was that some of the services that were available to online students were not as available to students on campus. It was a great testament to the services we provide, but also a testament, I think, to online education and the fact that online education is comparable to, and sometimes better than, on-campus education.
IMS Global: One of the things you've been successful in providing your knowledge partners is your marketing model. What are some of the important elements of a successful recruiting effort for distance learning programs?
GP: One thing that's important starts with that assessment process. The third element in the assessment, after the audience profile and the demand drivers for the marketplace, is audience accessibility. You need to know before you start where you can find this audience and how you can attract them. A second one would be what I would call a diverse marketing mix. Don't look at just one strategy or rely on just one strategy to attract students. You need a diverse mix of marketing strategies and you need to prioritize those strategies according to what you learned in the assessment process. For example, as we've talked about that clinical laboratory science program, one thing we discovered when we did the assessment was that the audience was not online. We did find that they read their professional journals regularly and that those journals were available in the laboratories where they worked. And so, the way we launched that program in the beginning, was through journal advertising. That was very important. And over time, we have moved that audience to the Internet. The growth for that program has been impressive. In less than two years (and before the first graduation) there are already almost 550 students in that program.
It's also important to regularly test different strategies. Try some new and different things based on what you're learning about your audience. We try new things every term; we commit resources to marketplace testing. And it's important to constantly re-assess the audience. We do new-student surveys and we also do non-enrolled prospect surveys for all the programs we support. Another strategy we use is what we call a drip strategy. Some institutions make mistakes by trying to attract all their student inquiries during certain times of the year instead of bringing in inquiries every day, every week. We then send student inquiries to our enrollment advisors and they get on the phone and call those prospective students within 24 hours. What they don't want is 1,000 leads one week and no leads the next.