Industry Insights

Valuable insights from UPCEA's trusted corporate partners.

5 Strategies for Online Growth: New Insights from a Survey of Students

In a new national study of the preferences and expectations of online students, RNL has identified five interconnected strategies that institutions must have in place at the core of their growth strategy. The data are drawn from a survey of 1,500 prospective and current online students administered just two months ago.   

The survey asked students about their motivations, concerns, search patterns, and decision-making processes, but also about their views on online study, the key features of programs in which they are most likely to enroll, specifics about how to make their courses work with the rest of their lives, and perhaps most importantly, their interest in and use of AI in their daily lives and their studies.  

There are five interlinked take-aways that comprise “action items” for institutions seeking to expand online enrollment. These action items are presented below in a specific order designed to ensure success. How so? Many institutions begin by creating a great program, with few resources left for all that it takes for success. However, the highest quality, most market-relevant programs will not result in robust enrollment if underpinning foundations – like effective follow-up, targeted messaging, state-of-the-art marketing, and infusing AI into everything you do – are not in place at the point of program launch.   

Five interconnected Strategies for Online Growth 

1. Invest in the recruitment process: Online students told us that their experience during the recruitment process will guide their decision. Investing in the recruitment team is the foundation of all the other “must dos” for institutions seeking growth.  

  • 44% expect a personalized response within 3 hours and all but 23 percent expecting within 24 hours 
  • 45% think a slow response indicates that they are not a priority to the program 
  • 49% will either very likely or definitely enroll in the program that responds to them first

2. Position programs to address aspirations and concerns: Online students told us why they enroll, why they select online, what concerns them, and more about who they are. Before institutions decide on channels and platforms, they need to work on messages and positioning.  

  • 50% of online students pursue a degree to advance their career. 
  • 50% indicate that their greatest concern about online study is the lack of interaction with either their instructors or classmates.  
  • 34% indicate that their online learning experience is better than past classroom experiences.  

3. Marketing strategies begin with search engine optimization: The research shows how students search, how many programs they consider, and how they get information on programs of interest. Institutions need to figure out how to stretch their marketing budget to effectively reach as many students as possible. 

  • 92% of online students use a search engine as either the first or second step in their program search.  
  • 73% clicked on digital ads – most often because the “copy” interested them.  
  • 76% watch videos during their search, equally split between program pages and YouTube 

4. Artificial intelligence is increasingly effective in aligning processes with student expectations. Online students are using AI daily and are increasingly satisfied with the experience. Institutions need to advance AI in their operations both to meet student expectations and improve their own efficiency.  

  • 47% of online students use an AI tool at least once per week. 
  • 50% would be likely to use an AI-driven research assistant in their studies.  
  • 79% used an AI-driven chatbot during their search for a program.  

5. Create programs and courses that students want: Respondents shared which types of programs are attractive to online students and how they need their courses organized. Successful online programs are built on a careful balancing of student needs and academic priorities. 

  • The top 10 online degrees include business, computer science, healthcare, and liberal arts topics.  
  • 75% enroll in programs offered in accelerated terms. 
  • 62% enroll in programs with either optional or no “live” meetings. 
  • 50+% indicate technical support or career development are the most important student services. 
  • The second most important factor in the enrollment decision (after cost) is career preparation – making this a curricular imperative as well as a “services” imperative.   


RNL is pleased to offer UPCEA members access to the full executive summary of the report. Click here to request a copy.


About RNL 

RNL offers a full range of services for institutions seeking to grow online (as well as graduate and undergraduate) enrollment. From consulting and market research to messaging architecture to digital marketing, RNL is committed to providing the help that institutions need to grow enrollment while retaining ownership and control. RNL’s approach provides what we call “radical transparency”, meaning that we want you to understand what we are doing and learn how to do it yourself.  

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