The Customer Experience in Online Higher Ed


Customer Service sticky note

The customer experience in online higher education ranges from extremely high-touch, Disney-grade customer service to a “you’re on your own” philosophy wherein learners even self-advise on what courses to take.  Let’s take a look at how different universities approach customer service from the first contact on.  We’re going to look at the overall market of online learning, demographics of online learners, different marketing mechanisms and associated terms, and finally we’ll explore models for learner support, which commonly falls into the bucket of “retention”.

Overall Market of Online Learning

Who are online learners?  In Online College Students 2018:  Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences, survey results from 1,500 learners across the US revealed demographic data about online learners.  It is important to note that these were learners who “were at least 18 years of age; had a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent; and were recently enrolled, currently enrolled, or planned to enroll in the next 12 months in a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree, certificate or licensure program” (Aslanian & Magda, 2018, p. 57).

The report reveals the following in terms of learner demographics:

Gender Undergraduate Graduate
Male 25% 32%
Female 74% 68%
Prefer not to say 0% 0%

There is an even greater percentage of women in online programs than women in on-campus degree and certificate programs.

Annual Household Income Undergraduate Graduate
Under $25,000 29% 23%
$25,000 – $39,999 23% 18%
$40,000 – $54,999 15% 15%
$55,000 – $69,999 13% 14%
$70,000 – $84,999 8% 9%
$85,000 – $99,000 4% 6%
Over $100,000 9% 16%

Together, this means that 80% of undergraduate online learners have a combined household income of under $70,000.  Of graduate online learners, 70% have a combined household income of under $70,000.  This speaks to the necessity of appropriate pricing for online programs, particularly if there is an intention to scale.

Of non-profit institutions with large online enrollments, Western Governors University is extremely low-cost, and Southern New Hampshire University has not raised its tuition in over 6 years.

The majority of undergraduates (57%) do not have children; 49% of graduate learners do not have children.  However, that also means that 43% of undergraduate and 50% of graduate learners have one or more kids.  How does that impact marketing messages?

Watch this University of Phoenix commercial, and see what types of learner demographics it addresses:

Why do learners select the institutions they do?  Primary reasons that learners choose the institution they select are price, reputation of institution, and reputation of program:

Graph: Primary reasons for selecting a learner includes tuition and fees (31%), then reputation of the program the learner wanted (13%) and reptuation of the school (12%).

As a learner going back for an additional credential, what would your primary decision point be?  What was it?  In retrospect, would you have made the same choice?

Take a look at how Arizona State University’s marketing addresses high-quality online education, make a note of the words used in the word cloud.  This ad targets the academic reputation rationale.  It also speaks to accessibility.


What terms are associated with the customer service components of online higher education learning experiences?  First, let’s review those as associated with the recruitment and marketing cycle.  Ultimately, in a contemporary university, the goal is to not have a one-time relationship with the learner that ends at graduation, but rather to have a lifetime relationship.  This graphic also shows a graduate earning several microcredentials on the way to a degree, and then coming back to apply for a new program once their degree is finished.  Remember those next educational experiences will likely be microcredentials or certificates, not always degrees.

Conversion funnel - most leads, then fewer prospects, fewer applicants, fewer admits, fewer learners who pay, then melt, then learner who shows up. Arrow indicates learner through graduation, and back to re-admit

When a learner first contacts the institution to express interest, that potential learner is called a “lead”.  This is typically a one-way communication (either potential learner to institution or institution to learner) and involves the learner filling out a web form, receiving emails from the institutions, or otherwise being contacted in a “mass” way.  Leads can be organically obtained by the potential learner seeking out the institution and expressing interest.  They can also be purchased from other sources.

If you have been marketed to without expressing interest, your information may have been purchased as a lead.  Next we’ll look at a couple of examples of what happens when you are approached as a lead.

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