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The University of the Future: Five Ways to Use Data and Analytics to Start Your Online Degree Program

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Click to learn more about author Eric Spear.

The face of the higher-education student is changing. In the past, the majority of college students were fresh out of high school or another undergraduate program, but 2018 statistics show that 74% of American undergrads are considered “nontraditional” students. With nontraditional students comes the need for higher-education institutions to re-evaluate not only the degree programs they offer, but also how they offer their students the ability to earn that degree. That takes good data and analytics.

Many universities now offer online degree programs. However, creating an online degree program is no small feat. It takes a lot of planning to prove the worth that the effort of starting an online program will have in the long run. But there is an easy and accurate way to start your journey down the online path: by using your school’s data to determine what your students are looking for, what your school is able to offer them, and how to structure an online program to benefit both your institution and your students.

Whether you’re using a higher-education data analytics platform or less tech-savvy methods, here are a few ways you can use your school’s data to benefit both your students and institution:

1. Understand What Your Students Want

According to Lee Gardner of chronicle.com, modern students are looking for a college degree to be three things: practical, convenient, and inexpensive.

  • Practical: First, look at your data to see if there is an uptick of older students either applying or signing up for your programs. What percentage of your student body is fresh out of high school and how many are juggling school, work, and family? Looking at course rosters, which classes or degree programs have the highest number of adult students? Are there any classes that require internships that nontraditional students just don’t have the time to complete? This data is a great starting point when choosing which courses or degrees to offer online.
  • Convenient: Your data can guide you when it comes to which days, times, or degree paths are most convenient for your nontraditional students. From there, you can decide how to make your students’ educational journeys even more convenient by offering the right courses online. Taking a look at data related to dropped, failed, or unattended courses, you can begin to figure out why nontraditional students are not succeeding.

Is the class too late in the evening or in a hard-to-find building on campus? Is conducting the class two times per week too much of a commitment for someone with a full-time job and a family to take care of in the evenings? How about the prerequisites?

  • Inexpensive: Cost is crucial, and your data can tell you exactly where your students are spending money. You could even look at demographic data to figure out the average income of your students and try to offer them more affordable options. Are there any courses that can be adjusted or removed from a syllabus? Use your data to see how much your students pay in registration and other fees. Could those be cut to encourage enrollment? Some other expenses that an online program could alleviate for your students are textbook costs and even time and gas spent driving to campus to attend classes. Use your student data to get an idea of how far your nontraditional students travel to attend classes on campus to help weigh out the financial benefits of moving some of your degrees online, even if it’s just the option for some of the classes to be offered online.

2. Re-evaluate Transfer Credit Policy

Many nontraditional students started a program but did not finish. Years later, they are looking to return to the classroom to finish their degree to get ahead in their career. Using your transfer student data, look at the number and types of credits that are coming into your institution with credits versus the credits you accept.

Consider how updating your transfer credit policy might encourage more adult students to enroll and graduate. Perhaps your online program could accept more credits than your on-campus options to give your online program a boost and make becoming your online student even more practical, convenient, and inexpensive to prospective applicants

3. Help Students Plan for Life After College

“The higher-education value proposition is all around the most inexpensive education and certification that will get me a job,” says Susan Grajek, Vice President for Communities and Research at EDUCAUSE. Looking at the opportunities that your graduates have once they complete their degree is a great way to show the value of your programs and can help you decide which ones would do well from going online.

Alumni data can show you how much students spend on their education versus the average salary of someone in the professional position they land when they graduate. You can also work with local employers for recruiting once they complete their degree, and once you have data on how many students land great, local jobs through the connections they make through your program, you can leverage that information to encourage more enrollment. If you can help a student graduate and get hired faster with an online degree program, the value of your program will be well worth the effort.

4. Make Applying Easier

A big hurdle that adult students run into when restarting their education is the application process. A student who has been out of school for 10 years might have a hard time tracking down old transcripts, for example.

Look at your data surrounding budget and employees to see if your school can update the application process to make it easier for your nontraditional students succeed. What can be safely removed from the application process? Can you afford to assist students in gathering transcripts and old education information?

4. Learn Why Students Aren’t Succeeding

Data around attendance and performance is also a powerful means of determining what works for your online students and what doesn’t. An online degree program doesn’t help anyone if your students are unable to find the time to log in and complete their coursework.

If you have an existing online program and are looking to expand it or improve outcomes, look at data surrounding the number and types of students who fail to pass in assignments, log in for scheduled discussions, and beyond. Compare their online performance with their age, marital status, and job status to try and diagnose what is preventing your students from succeeding. Perhaps the professor needs to be more available for one-on-one chats, or maybe the accelerated timeline of an online course is just too condensed for some students to keep up with.

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