An interesting new statistic is reassuring news for private higher ed institutions that saw their "inevitable downfall" being forecast a few months ago: Distance learners are on the rise at institutions nationally, and it's proving to be a major revenue stream.
According to an Inside Higher Ed report on a survey of academic officers conducted by the Council of Independent Colleges and the Learning House, 61% of private schools offer at least one fully online program and 25% offered five or more — up about 10% across the board from 2013. Furthermore, 38% of faculty report they have overcome the barrier of skepticism about the efficacy of online coursework, indicating the number is likely going to rise. As surprising industries such as tech are seeing an increase in demand for liberal arts graduates, private schools that can cater to large groups of students all at once are becoming more in demand, as well.
On top of that, more than 25% of institutions reported making in excess of $1 million in revenue from online programs, and the majority also report revenue streams from online tuition have grown or stayed steady in the same time frame.
The benefits are clear: offering an increase in online courses geared toward distance learners can significantly increase your enrollment rates by appealing to students who might not view your institution's traditional courses as a good fit for them, such as single parents, working professionals and other key demographics who could otherwise benefit from the education you offer. But if you're looking to start an online course or further develop an existing program, there are some significant considerations you need to take — particularly pertaining to course materials.
1. Pay close attention to format choices
First and foremost, determine the course material choices you'll make available for distance learners. You already know the cost-saving advantages of used, rental and digital, but there's more to it when you're taking into consideration students who likely will never physically set foot on your campus:
- Rental is an option students expect and seek out to minimize the upfront cost of acquiring materials, but are you prepared to organize a rental system for students who potentially live hundreds or thousands of miles away? How will you enforce late fees or damage deposits?
- Selling used books can prevent the logistical issues of renting over distance, but you'll have to factor in potentially significant shipping costs on titles that are much less likely to be sold back to your store at the end of the year than titles sold on campus.
- Offering digital removes the question of delivery costs, but enforcing a digital course material policy for distance learners could undermine your faculty's ability to choose the content that best suits their course, and can be difficult to help students who need help accessing their materials if they do not live locally.
Attempting to manage all of these on your own is no simple feat, but not offering the choices students expect could lead them to shop elsewhere, and risk encountering other problems with their orders that could affect learning outcomes.
2. Be prepared to tackle fulfillment
If you have a brick-and-mortar bookstore on campus, the increase in web payment processing, verification and security processes, shipping and other fulfillment steps involved in serving distance learners can be overwhelming to even the most well-staffed and experienced stores. You may have to increase labor hours during an already busy time of year for campus stores, and many staff members will likely exclusively be focusing on managing the fulfillment process rather than helping any students who are making purchases in person. Bookstore staff will also need to remain vigilant against an increased risk of fraudulent orders, and organizing legitimate returns and refunds means the increase in work doesn't end during the rush season early in the term.
3. Figure out a plan for customer service
Customer service is a matter of providing prompt, friendly help for anyone who walks in your store. Adding distance learners into the mix, however, complicates matters. If anyone has a question about their order, they'll need to be able to reach the store by phone or email. Working through occasional issues such as missing shipments or confusion surrounding accessing digital materials can be a complex process, and further keeps bookstore staff away from their in-store duties while they field calls and questions.
The scope of your distance program could also significantly affect your customer service strategy. If you're catering to students in different time zones, that's inherently decreasing the amount of time in the day they have to get ahold of you, and vice versa. When such students are having problems with an order, precious time could be spent playing phone tag or waiting on emails rather than resolving the issue. It's not a great use of time for anyone involved.
4. Consider having someone else handle the hassle
With a dedicated course material fulfillment provider managing inventory, delivery and customer service to distance learners for you, your store can keep providing excellent products and services to your on-campus students and won't have to sweat the details.
That's why when Cox College evaluated its distance learning program, it opted to partner with MBS Direct to manage getting course materials in its off-campus learners' hands, while the on-campus store took care of the rest of the student body.