Growing Online Enrollments Through a Data-Driven Approach

Last updated on: January 28, 2021

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Background

Founded in 1893, Concordia University, St. Paul is a comprehensive liberal arts university that offers academic programs designed to respond to marketplace needs by delivering skills and abilities employers seek. Concordia’s affiliation with The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and Christian worldview empower students to discover and engage their purpose for life, career, and service.

Challenge: Identifying Innovative Solutions to Stimulate Enrollment Rates

In 2009, leaders at Concordia realized they needed to innovate. The future of their university was online, but their online learning initiatives were stagnating, with limited growth in undergraduate programs and increasing competition from other institutions. Enrollments had flattened at just short of 3,000 students. 

They were also facing an increasing number of students who questioned if earning a college degree was worth the cost of tuition. These misgivings hindered recruitment efforts and made it clear that Concordia needed to offer programs that were more relevant to the current job market. If they maintained the status quo, many of Concordia’s online programs could become unsustainable and not meet students’ needs. 

Like many other small, private institutions, Concordia lacked the significant capital required to implement new marketing initiatives and optimize their online programs to compete with larger universities. They needed a partner to make their bold vision for growth a reality.

“We were in a bind,” said Eric LaMott, chief operating officer and provost at Concordia. “We needed more quality talent and labor to be effective and to scale up.”

Concordia engaged Wiley Education Services (formerly Learning House) about entering a partnership. Wiley proposed a dynamic strategy to drive enrollment growth via data-proven best practices, including creativity, courage to try new things, and a student-first mindset.

Strategy: Build a Brand and Diversify Program Offerings

Concordia embraced this new strategy and put their trust in Wiley. They believed in Wiley’s tailored, enterprise approach to managing—and growing—the university’s online program offerings. 

“After we saw their strategy and company culture matching that of CSP’s, choosing which path to take became easy,” said Dr. Kimberly Craig, vice president of enrollment management and tenure-track faculty in the College of Business and Technology at Concordia. “And Wiley shared the same passion for improving students’ lives that we did.”

These initiatives focused on the university’s brand and targeted specific online programs. Wiley’s marketing strategies would prove essential to boost enrollment, drive innovation, and improve student outcomes.

Wiley’s substantial and strategic marketing investment has also been critical in growing Concordia’s online programs and has built momentum through a stronger institutional brand. These efforts are a transformational feature of the partnership, as Concordia had previously lacked the financial resources to widely promote their online offerings. 

By taking on upfront marketing costs on Concordia’s behalf, Wiley mitigated capital risks to the university, clearing the way for both parties to focus on what they do best: collaborating to deliver extraordinary academic experiences for online students through the use of marketing analytics, media strategy, and business and educational partnerships.

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Growth Opportunities Through Marketing Analytics

Wiley’s marketing analytics experts focused on identifying opportunities for growth. They used the company’s analytical capabilities to find overlooked workforce education sectors that could be converted into successful online programs. 

They assessed local, national, and regional data to identify areas where career professionals—and potential Concordia students—might need additional upskilling. They then informed Concordia officials when other colleges had already saturated certain education markets. By combining data from their own reports with information from outside sources, Wiley analyzed how the university could meet workforce needs and develop engaging programs professionals were looking for.

Increased Brand Awareness Through Media Strategy

Throughout the partnership, Wiley has heavily invested in marketing initiatives to develop regional and national brand awareness of Concordia. These efforts are grounded in the unique value and return on investment Concordia degrees deliver. Wiley has allocated marketing funds and media spend strategically and it has paid off: Their efforts have generated more than 100,000 leads and improved Concordia’s prospective student conversion rate over the life of the partnership.

Initiatives included:

  • Targeted campaigns that integrated a range of digital and traditional advertising, including TV, radio, pay-per-click, social media, billboards, transit, and other mediums.
  • A website redesign that improved user experience and search engine optimization (SEO).
  • A fully integrated social media strategy centered on both brand and program-specific campaigns, as well as the use of social media influencers to reach a wider audience of prospective students.

“Before we partnered with Wiley, CSP was often referred to as ‘St. Paul’s best-kept secret,’ but now the secret is out,” Dr. Craig said. “Wiley was able to lift our brand awareness and has done wonders for us on the marketing side with their thoughtful and ambitious marketing strategy.”

Widening Target Audiences Through Business and Educational Partnerships

A regional field team, hired and employed by Wiley, was created specifically for Concordia’s market and continues to grow. The team has promoted student-start growth at Concordia through strategic relationships with 45 community colleges and 183 organizations, such as corporations, police departments, professional associations, and hospital systems.

The partnership has expanded further through a relationship with Advancement Courses, a product offering from Wiley. These expertly crafted, graduate-level professional development opportunities are designed for K-12 teachers throughout the U.S. With Advancement Courses, Concordia can empower teachers, helping them enhance their skills and further their careers. Plus, the graduate credits they offer are degree eligible, giving teachers incentive to earn their next credential from Concordia.

Developing solutions for working professionals is a cornerstone of Wiley’s strategy. By widening target audiences to include those looking for specific credentials to advance in their current career or launch a new professional path, Concordia has been able to diversify its offerings and deliver more of what potential students want.

“We’re able to do things with professionals that we could never do on our own,” LaMott adds. “The partnership allows us to bring in top-of-the-line higher education expertise. Simply put, we couldn’t scale up without the partnership. It’s been transformational.”

Results: Record Growth and a Superior Student Experience

Through this collaborative partnership, Concordia nearly doubled annual online student starts from fall 2012 to fall 2018. During that same period, the number of actively enrolled online students grew an impressive 174%. For the fall 2021 start date, total enrollments reached 5,567—more than 1,800 of which were online students. Both numbers broke previous enrollment records and redefined growth for the university.

Additionally, Concordia recently celebrated its ninth consecutive year of enrollment increases during a time when significant growth for small institutions is rare. Concordia also earned a top 20 ranking in OnlineU’s “2021 Best Colleges for ROI” based on its bachelor’s degrees. 

Now, Concordia has a new enrollment goal: 7,000 total students by 2024. Wiley supports that objective by continuing to refine best practices, identify key metrics of success, personalize enrollment strategies, and implement leading marketing tactics.

“We now have the goal of being the number one online institution in the region. And that’s all possible because of our partnership with Wiley,” Dr. Craig said.

The partnership has set up Concordia for long-term success by promoting collaboration, continuous innovation, and agile process improvement. In the future, Concordia will continue to offer superior student experiences and versatile online programs with real growth potential. Their partnership with Wiley makes this possible.

“Given what the industry is like now, some of us might ask, ‘Would we even be here if we hadn’t partnered with Wiley?’” LaMott says. “If we hadn’t, we’d be smaller. We wouldn’t have the leverage to get out in front of things. And we might be on the same chopping block as a lot of smaller schools that couldn’t make the tough decisions to invest in new ways of delivering education.”

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