The number of U.S. high school graduates is expected to increase through 2025, after which it will decrease for a downturn lasting several years, as a result of a drop in fertility rates following the Great Recession of 2008. The tristate region will be hit particularly hard — and today, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Maryland are the top four states from which Drexel draws students.
Drexel University has been ahead of the game in preparing for this enrollment decline by adjusting its cost structure, recruitment strategies, services and academic programming. And as an industry leader that specializes in serving non-traditional students, Drexel University Online (DUO) is stepping up to help the University thrive during those years.
“One way to make Drexel stronger is to build up its populations of graduate students and online students,” said Senior Vice President for Online Learning and President of DUO Susan C. Aldridge, PhD. “This sets the stage for us to show why online learning is going to be important for the future not just because younger students like technology and gravitate toward it, but because we need to be able to reach students all over the United States.”
Drexel has been a leader in online learning since 1996, when it became one of the first universities in the country to offer online courses in the same year that Amazon officially opened and EBay was founded. A year later, Drexel started its first fully online program with a master of science degree in library science.
Now, DUO helps provide a wide range of different degree and certificate programs to part-time and full-time online students, from a master’s of legal studies in law from the Kline School of Law to a variety of certificates and programs available through the College of Nursing and Health Professions. These undergraduate and graduate online students log in from all 50 states and, on average, anywhere from 20 to 30 different countries. To meet their unique needs, DUO has built a sophisticated operation grounded in a concierge service model that leverages both a highly trained staff and the latest technologies.
“While our goal remains making Drexel one of the world’s leading providers of online learning, Drexel University Online today plays an ever-bigger potential role in ensuring the overall University’s future,” said Drexel President John Fry. “By continuously building partnerships and reaching students here and abroad, Drexel Online expands learning opportunities.”
The fully online students are usually older than the typical undergraduate student; most of them are already working professionals, and DUO serves roughly half of the veterans studying at the University. These students enroll in graduate degree and certificate programs to, for the most part, help them get a leg up in their field of work or pivot to another profession. What’s more, they often find Drexel not through proximity or name recognition, but through Google searches for specific degree and certificate programs that are relevant to their career fields, which DUO has made easier to find through its industry-recognized use of search engine optimization.
Although online students typically complete their university search in less than eight weeks, they often have questions about the online learning environment and how it works. With that in mind, DUO provides its award-winning Test Drive, a free, weeklong online course that enables prospective students to explore online learning, while connecting with Drexel Ambassadors recruited from among the University’s online faculty and staff, current students and alumni.
In addition to its digital marketing, DUO has also built a solid network of hundreds of strategic business partners, including companies and agencies like Comcast, Lockheed Martin and the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management. These partners sign a letter of understanding, which provides their employees with certain benefits for continuing their education online at Drexel — a win-win on both sides.
“We’ve surveyed our online students, and we found that most wouldn’t have been able to take classes at Drexel if we didn’t have online programs,” said Aldridge. “They know we can provide them with the credential they need to be promoted at work or to move into a different job.”
DUO is positioned to grow Drexel’s online and graduate student populations to offset the expected drop in traditional undergraduate students, and is already offering degrees and programs to students who are older and more professionally advanced than Drexel’s undergraduate population.
“One of our frequently asked questions is about whether online learning will cannibalize the face-to-face experience — and that’s a myth we have to dispel,” said Aldridge. “Generally, the online student population is completely different from the traditional Drexel undergraduate student population. We cater to a different audience.”
DUO is also an asset to the University, given that it can be used as a testing ground for new technologies and opportunities. For example, DUO tests new licenses or software among its online students before deciding whether they should be used (and purchased) for the entire University.
e can grow our online student population by having the kind of niche market programs that really resonate, along with targeted support services and virtual resources that add value to the student experience,” said Aldridge. “And we don't have to build a lot of infrastructure to expand the student population and support these Dragons. We're not limited by how many students we can serve; we have the ability to serve thousands more students and work with colleges and schools to grow their online student populations.”