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Raising enrollment requires unconventional strategies

If you read today’s Detroit Free Press, you may have seen an article regarding WCC’s projected enrollment losses for the spring/summer semester. Currently, enrollment is down by more than 25% from last year. That could change by May 8, the first day of classes, but that is unlikely.

Guest students drive a significant portion of WCC’s spring/summer enrollment. These students enroll at WCC in order to complete core classes they need for a program elsewhere. The catch, of course, is that many institutions will not transfer credits from online courses. Students must take the course in person. When in-person classes are not available, these students have no reason to enroll at WCC.

An online-only semester poses problems all the way around. Universities won’t transfer certain credits earned in online courses. There’s no really good way to deliver the bread-and-butter vocational and occupational classes online. And, as it turns out, most students don’t like online classes.

A lot of higher education institutions have spent a long time and a lot of money developing online courses and delivery systems. The rationales for online learning are well-developed. Institutions could reduce the need for infrastructure on campus. Students can get anytime-anywhere education that fits their schedules. Online education ultimately costs less because students don’t have to commute to/live on campus. Institutions can serve students who would not otherwise be able to attend. Online courses are less expensive on a per-student basis to operate. Self-paced study can eliminate the traditional academic calendar and allow students to earn degrees faster.

Regardless of this effort, the reality is that online education does not work for everyone or in all circumstances. Most students still are not comfortable with them. They view online classes as a low-quality substitute for in-person learning. Sadly, online classes are often just that.

Half a loaf is better than none

For the first time in awhile, WCC is in a buyer’s market, and the students are voting with their pocketbooks. They will not pay a premium for a cut-rate experience. As such, I would say this to the WCC administration. Since the summer semester is shaping up to be a huge loss, cut the 2020 summer tuition rate in half. Eliminate non-resident tuition and whatever extra fees you usually lard onto online courses. Get as many students enrolled as you can because frankly half a loaf is better than none.

Life must have gotten an unbeatable deal on lemons, so you should take this opportunity to make some lemonade. Spend the summer learning how to develop a fundamentally better, higher quality, student-focused online learning experience. Address the concerns that prevent universities from transferring credits from online coursework. Choose the best tools you can find to deliver an online learning experience that appeals to students. (Hint: It probably doesn’t involve cramming the entire course catalog onto Blackboard. It probably does involve working with your professional, full-time faculty.) Figure out how to deliver a better online learning experience for students in vocational/occupational programs. Improve your academic advising.

This approach makes some sense, especially if – as some institutions are already considering – there’s a real chance the fall semester will also be online. If you’re going to offer online courses exclusively, take the time to figure out how to do it well.

Photo Credit: Melinda** , via Flickr