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The Seven Attributes of Highly Effective Online Degrees

By February 11, 2015 2 Comments

In 1989, Stephen Covey published The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The book was a huge success, selling over 25 million copies and spawning several follow-ups. The core message is that success doesn’t just happen; rather, we make concerted decisions that positively impact our lives. The book’s popularity and longevity stem from tapping into our innate hunger for success.
Leaders at colleges and universities are similarly hungry to understand the keys to successful online degrees, hoping to boost enrollments (and revenue), broaden their offerings, and at least remain competitive if not, in fact, gain a competitive edge. As with our personal lives, successful online programs don’t just happen; they require forethought, research, planning, orchestration, cooperation, and effort. I find that many institutions want to simply “online-ify” their ground degrees, slapping PDFs and a few videos up on the LMS. Those days, if they ever existed, are over.
Colleges and universities looking to go online or grow their online footprint need to consider the desires/challenges/schedules/lives of their future online learners and view online degrees as an opportunity to shift the paradigm. Instead of forcing students into an institutional box (three 16-week semesters per year, intakes in Fall/Spring/Summer), I suggest that they flip the box entirely and adapt online degrees to meet the needs of online adult learners. This article includes seven ways the box should be flipped to find success. I’m delighted to share the seven attributes of highly effective online degrees to help inform institutions looking to go/grow online.
Here are the seven attributes of highly effective online degrees:

  1. TUITION

A 2014 survey of online students found that “tuition and fees” is the second most important factor in choosing an online program. (What’s #1? Overall reputation of the college/university.) Adult learners earning a degree online want a good education, at a reasonable cost, that offers the promise of a strong return on their investment via post-graduation career mobility.
“Reasonable” as a description of cost leaves much room for interpretation. I propose that a competitive program should fall within a 10-15% range of its main competitors. Outliers on the very cheap end of the spectrum are suspect. For instance, there are several online MBAs for around $20,000, but are they accredited by AACSB? Is an MBA from these institutions respected in the corporate world? On the other end of the cost spectrum, there are online MBAs and EMBAs that exceed $100,000. Few can afford this without extensive employer support, so while the institutional pedigree may be unquestioned, are they really viable for the majority of online learners? Is the ROI on $100,000 in tuition and fees worth it?
An important factor in pricing online degrees is the relationship with tuition for the institution’s on-ground programs (if they exist). As the online degree marketplace has matured and the number of competitors has increased, institutions are less able to charge more for an online degree than for its on-ground counterpart. In the past, some institutions did just that, as a sort of convenience fee for the luxury of studying online. I believe that the days of charging more for online delivery are over.
I’m often asked about charging less for the online version of, say, a Master of Science in Criminal Justice. While the notion is compelling, there’s one giant reason not to: charging less for a comparable online version of an existing ground degree might foster the notion—still held by many—that online higher education is not as good or rigorous.
As with many of the seven attributes of highly effective online degrees, market research is a necessity to inform costs. I find that most online MBAs fall between $35,000-$60,000, but an analysis of the institutions with which you compete—or hope to compete—is a worthwhile investment to ensure that your online degrees are priced competitively.

  1. PROGRAM LENGTH

As with cost, the number of credit hours required to earn a degree is extremely important to adult learners with busy, complicated lives. I call this TTDC: Time to Degree Completion, and it should be comparable to other online degrees. If one institution requires 36 credit hours and the same degree at a competitor is 45 credit hours, prospective students will be confused.
My research shows a range of required credit hours for online graduate degrees, including just a few examples below:

  • Doctor of Nursing Practice: closely clustered between 46-48 credit hours
  • MBA: wide range, from 30-51 credit hours
  • MS in Forensic Science: 32-36 credit hours
  • Master of Social Work: 60-78 credit hours

There are often mitigating factors governing the required number of credit hours for an online graduate degree. For instance, some program-specific accrediting bodies heavily regulate the number of credit hours required for a degree. Some institutions require more pre-requisite courses than others. Some institutions will accept transfer credits while others do not.
There is often a debate between TTDC and academic quality. In my experience, online students want a combination of affordability, academic quality, and the ability to complete their degree as quickly as possible. I appreciate the contradictions herein, but I also advise my clients that if their online degree requires significantly more credit hours than the competition, they will struggle to enroll students.
With this in mind, I encourage universities to remain keenly aware of the motivations of online learners and strike a balance between TTDC and academic quality. Careful research, of peer/aspirant institutions as well as any externally driven regulations, is of paramount importance when determining the length of an online degree.

  1. COURSE LENGTH

The easy answer to the question “how long should each course last?” is to match the on-ground version. However, I suggest that online degrees should last approximately eight weeks, not the typical 16 weeks of most ground courses. Here’s why:
Online adult learners lead busy lives, and the ability to complete a three-credit course in eight weeks may help improve completion and persistence rates. This is an admittedly subjective statement, but I often hear from adult learners that completing one course in eight weeks, or two sequential courses over the typical 16-week semester, is preferable to taking two concurrent courses that both take 16 weeks to complete.
There are two notable challenges to implementing eight-week terms:

  1. Systems and Technology: The institution’s systems must be configured to allow for eight-week terms, which impacts nearly every student-facing function: registrar, admissions, financial aid, bursar, and others. This is neither easy nor simple to execute, but the numerous institutions offering eight-week online courses show that it is doable. (In fact, many institutions offer five-week courses for their online adult learners.) And while the short-term challenge of updating systems is likely to be difficult, once it is done, there is an administrative framework upon which to build an entire portfolio of online degrees.
  1. Some faculty members, accustomed to and comfortable with the traditional 16-week semester, are loath to change. Deans cite challenges with hiring faculty to teach shorter courses, collective bargaining agreement issues, and the assertion that good pedagogy is not compatible with shorter courses. While the former concerns may be entirely valid, I’m skeptical of the oft-cited concern that “we simply can’t teach this in eight weeks and maintain academic quality.”

Just last week, I was with a client seeking advice about which online degrees have the best chance for success. In a presentation to the provost, deans, department chairs, and faculty, I heard a rousing chorus of “oh no, we could never do that” when I suggested that online courses should be eight weeks. This is a typical response, but in rebuttal, I noted that many institutions have found a way to teach the requisite subject matter in eight weeks with no apparent degradation to quality. And their online degrees are a success.

  1. CAROUSEL MODEL

The course carousel lets institutions offer courses in a measured way that allows for multiple intakes per year. Essentially, the carousel offers the pre-requisite course every start, with new courses introduced in subsequent terms. The course carousel means that students will always have the prerequisite course and at least one additional course available in every term.
Carousel benefits include the following:

  • Offering the introductory course every start allows for six intakes/year
  • The institution can offer fewer courses per term while still meeting the needs of new and continuing students
  • The institution can more effectively plan for its faculty hiring needs, as the carousel offers a set schedule of course offerings
  • Courses can be developed over time–not every course needs to be ready at the launch of the program (saving time, money, frustration, and allowing lessons learned to inform future course development)
  • Courses can similarly be refreshed over time, without a wholesale overhaul at any one time
  • Persistence and completion rates may rise because students will always have at least one available course that they need to continue without stopping out to wait for a required, but unavailable, course
  1. NUMBER OF INTAKES/YEAR

An important attribute of successful online degrees is having six entry points per year, or one every eight weeks. Enrolling a new class every eight weeks may present initial challenges, but the ability for new adult learners to start their program no more than eight weeks after being accepted will improve application-to-start metrics. Here’s a scenario that illustrates why:
 Maude is a 38-year-old program manager who works full time, has two kids, a busy spouse, and limited free time. Motivated by her mentor and driven by the awareness that a graduate degree is becoming de rigueur, she finally decided to pursue her MBA. Her busy schedule necessitated that it would have to be fully online.
Maude got recommendations from friends and Googled “online MBA good value” to find options. She completed inquiry forms for three different programs and was immediately inundated with calls and emails. She ultimately decided to apply to the online MBA at XYZ University. As XYZ’s admissions counselor talked her through the application process, Maude began to question herself: applying for the program already felt like a full-time job, requiring an application, letters of recommendation, transcripts from all undergraduate institutions she attended, and writing the dreaded essay. How would she ever have time to pursue an MBA? At least there was no GMAT required; that would’ve been a deal breaker.
But she persevered. She had a heart-to-heart with her spouse about how to pay for the MBA; even with a possible scholarship from XYZ and her firm’s tuition reimbursement program, she would have to borrow tens of thousands of dollars. More form filling and data gathering ensued as she completed her first FAFSA in 15 years. Eventually, she completed her online application. Then…she waited. And waited. And waited.
But all of her hard work paid off: on February 14th, she was accepted to XYZ’s online MBA! It was a true Valentine. Delighted (and exhausted), she breathed a sigh of relief until she learned that the next intake was in June. Four months away. That’s four months to second-guess her decision, realizing just how swamped she’d be with year-end budgeting at work, finding camp for the kids, planning their annual trip to the beach, and second-guessing the ROI of a $60,000 MBA.
Four months.
16 weeks.
Ample time to question if this was the right time to leap into a time- and money-intensive venture that would take two years, countless hours away from the kids, reading articles, writing papers, and all of the other things she’d dreaded all along. In May, her cold feet iced over and she opted not to pursue her MBA.
This cautionary tale is no dystopian horror story; it happens every day. XYZ University spent thousand of dollars “acquiring” Maude as a new student, and it was all for nothing. Chances are good that Maude may never pursue her MBA—at XYZ or anywhere. There will always be work obligations, vacations to plan, issues with her kids, etc. However, with six starts/year, Maude would never have to wait more than eight weeks to start from the moment she got accepted to XYZ, which might have made all the difference for her and for the University.

  1. ASYNCHRONOUS DELIVERY

Asynchronous is defined as “not occurring at the same time.” In the context of online educational delivery, asynchronous courses are those that do not require the student to be at the computer at the same time a lecture is being delivered. For adult learners with careers, spouses, children, soccer practice, international business trips, and other elements of daily life, being at a computer at a given date/time for a class is at best an inconvenience. More likely, it is an impossibility. Furthermore, requiring a student to be online at a given time essentially undermines one of online higher education’s greatest promises: the freedom and convenience that come from being untethered.
That having been said, there are online courses that require synchronous sessions periodically—either weekly or several times throughout the course. While not ideal, most students can accommodate this requirement if given advance warning. Faculty members should take this into consideration when creating the course syllabus so that students have ample warning and can plan accordingly. However, the majority of the course should be asynchronous so that students can access lectures when it works for them.

  1. RESEARCH

Undergirding these attributes of highly effective online degrees is the need to truly understand the marketplace in which you hope to compete. The only way to do this is through a combination of secondary and primary market research.
Secondary research entails gathering existing data from other sources. It’s a time- and labor-intensive effort, but the results are invaluable when planning an online degree. For instance, an unbiased competitive analysis will reveal what your competitors are doing—or not doing—and help set the stage for how to build your online degrees across all of the seven attributes explained above. Government data on labor market projections, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics currently forecasts through 2022, is also important. Will the demand for forensics specialists or cyber security experts in 2022 justify launching an online degree in 2016? Other than guessing, the only way to make informed decisions is by culling and studying external data.
Primary market research, conversely, is institution specific. I recommend a combination of qualitative research (focus groups, interviews) and quantitative research (online surveys) with key stakeholders to assess demand for online degrees. There are many examples of institutions launching an online degree only to enroll a handful of students. This costly and embarrassing mistake can be prevented by studying the landscape and applying the simple law of supply and demand. Paraphrasing a famous line from the movie Field of Dreams, just because you build an online degree doesn’t mean students will enroll.
Conducting research to help inform your institution’s online degrees is a worthwhile investment, whether you do it in-house or outsource to a professional market researcher who understands online higher education and adult learners. With solid planning and an emphasis on the seven attributes of highly effective online degrees, your institution will be well prepared to compete and meet the needs of adult learners.
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Scott Levine is the Founder and CEO of Higher Education Research Consultants. His research focuses on enrollment and marketing across academe, with a strong emphasis on online degrees. He has managed online degrees at leading institutions including the Universities of Delaware, Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee and Boston, Howard, and Pepperdine Universities. He researched and wrote the groundbreaking Eduventures Market Guide to Online Program Management. And he rocks a black turtleneck. For more information, visit the longest URL in the free world at www.higheredresearchconsultants.com.

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