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Stand Out by Bringing a ‘Concierge’ Experience to Online Education

March 30, 2023

Higher education has gone online, and though demand for university or college-level programs peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has remained high ever since, with over 19 million U.S. students enrolled in online courses as of 2022. It’s a booming industry, projected to reach nearly $US74 billion by the end of this year. The competition is fierce. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are currently 2,500 colleges offering online programs and the largest players have already captured nearly 50% of student enrollment. Postsecondary alternatives, including “massively open online courses” (MOOCs) such as Coursera and EdX, have also lured away prospective students with flexible, module-like programming that caters to online learning. The only way to stand out is to bring a unique, ‘concierge’ experience to online education, one that will yield greater brand awareness, greater enrollment, and lead to a greater share of this $74 billion education sector. 

Building the Best Online Learning Experience: Expectations and Barriers  

With a 92% increase in online enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic, students have become used to the digital delivery of postsecondary education, often at substantially reduced rates. Discounts have become steeper, and even elite institutions such as Princeton University, Spelman College and American University now offer significantly lower tuitions for fully online experiences. Competition is heating up, and while over 70% of online learners say that affordable tuition costs are one of the key factors in their school selection, there are still certain issues with online education that, if resolved, could make eLearning programs more attractive.

If educational providers want to increase their enrollments, it’s important to understand the expectations of online students and why some feel that it doesn’t yet provide the same fulfilling, enriched student experience as on-campus learning. A recent research paper and student survey delved into some of those perceived barriers and concerns.  

Administrative Issues  

In the survey, over one quarter of respondents said they enjoyed online learning less than face-to-face. There was a perceived feeling of isolation that detracted many students from enrolling in online programs. However, on closer inspection, much of that was linked to insufficient student support services and administrative issues when it came to admissions, registration, school orientation, and accessing financial aid. Without a physical student services center, many felt unsupported, and did not feel they could easily reach school administration personnel if they had questions or concerns. Staffing challenges have also eroded the trust in the online learning experience. As one study noted, a single change in administrators can have a devastating impact on the reputation of newer programs that have shorter histories than traditional departments with a long history of operation and success.  

Technical Issues 

Though 68% of survey respondents say that they are “comfortable and confident” with online learning, that degree of comfort is often related to people’s ease with online learning technologies. A steady internet connection is required, along with videoconferencing capabilities and access to a compatible device. Technical glitches can happen, and they can ruin the learning experience. In fact, when McKinsey asked students to list their top frustrations with online learning, 18% of respondents said it was “getting the technology to work”. Not every student is confident troubleshooting technical difficulties on their own. Even those born into the digital age, like Gen Z, often report a “digital skills gap.” According to a Dell report, 44% of Gen Zs said that their schools taught them only basic computing skills. And while a student on campus can readily reach out to an IT department if they have a problem, online students may not be as fortunate.  

Marketing Issues 

Many institutions developed their marketing programs in a time of limited competition. However, tactics that used to work no longer yield the same results. The main problem is that most recruitment efforts are failing. More than two thirds of eLearning leaders cite a high need for marketing and promotion to drive new enrollments, something which is increasingly difficult in a hot U.S. labor market where there’s no perceived need for added education to secure a better job. However, even if the demand were to spike, institutions often lack the speed and agility to respond to sudden influxes of program inquiries. They usually cannot offer 24/7 phone support, have small in-house recruitment teams, or use cookie-cutter information to respond to student inquiries. This is leading more schools to explore digital channels, such as social media, to market their online programs – something which 43% of online college students use to follow schools of interest.  

Building a ‘Concierge’ Experience May Be the Answer 

To stand out, postsecondary institutions could look at employing a ‘white glove’ concierge model of service. A virtual student services center could mimic the same functions as an in-person, on campus center and act as a contact and program advisory hub for current and prospective students. Online schools could offer robust student support systems, offering backend admin services 24/7, such as admissions, program inquiry and registration, and even fee payment, along with technical support. 

They could even go a step further. Wouldn’t it be exceptional to offer dedicated channels that help online students, and their parents, with academic, administrative, technological, and financial challenges. Many universities are beginning to deploy AI-based chatbots to serve those functions and answer basic questions. Yet, a more customer-centric approach would also personalize these interactions with live agents who can also resolve more complex issues and offer tailored program recommendations related to careers of interest. 

Students could take a survey or assessment that captures their skills and passions, and this information could be fed to advisors who can align majors to related career options and supply personalized studies and skill-building plans. They could even perform regular ‘check-ins’ to re-evaluate plans or connect students to peer support programs if added help were needed with certain courses. 

By combining automation to save costs, analytics to deliver more targeted program recommendations and personalized graduation projections, and one-on-one personal interactions to troubleshoot issues, online students would receive the comprehensive support they need.  

Outsourcing Support Could Deliver a Distinct Learning Experience 

Of course, to offer this distinctive learning experience, online education providers should consider building partnerships with specialists in customer experience (CX) delivery and program/content delivery. Outsourcing can be a cost-effective way to offer this ‘white glove’ experience, as CX vendors already have the infrastructure to deliver this experience at scale and can recruit administrative personnel easily and efficiently, along with those specializing in IT or education services.  

At itel, we could provide that caring network that supports online learning through an easily accessible, 24/7 student service desk, along with IT support and accounts receivables for tuition payment. We could also supplement marketing and recruitment activities with a dedicated sales team, focused on student outreach through the mediums that online students prefer, such as social media, email and SMS.  

Our Data Science & Innovation team can also help you streamline the admissions process by introducing AI-driven chatbots to handle simple inquiries. We can also look at effective, cost-saving automations that can help students self-serve, such as the ability to self- upload required documents, complete necessary forms, and relate any program requirements by directing students to helpful FAQ pages.  

Also, we can ramp up qualified customer care and tech support personnel during high traffic, offering multilingual, expert support for students, parents, instructors, and staff.  

Most importantly, we can help you build a concierge-style student experience that will set you up as a leader in online education, driving further enrollments, increased brand awareness, and a reputation for delivering a one-of-a-kind learning experience.  

Connect with us! Contact our team to get started.

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