Understanding the online university student

By John Sande

Learning institutions across the globe continue to suffer from the impact of COVID-19 as infections continue to rise. Most students have not been able to return to school since the beginning of the year with over a billion children and young adults unable to continue with their studies. As traditional institutions of learning were shut down, far-reaching economic and societal consequences emerged including interrupted learning, compromised nutrition, healthcare challenges, widespread insecurity, childcare problems, and consequent economic cost to families who could not work. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) March 2020 report, this impact was more severe for disadvantaged children and their families.

In order to limit the disruption of education because of the unprecedented closure of schools, UNESCO recommended the use of distance learning programs and open educational applications and platforms that schools and teachers could use to reach learners remotely. As a result, many embraced new innovative ways and models of learning, including online learning.

As many schools, colleges and universities prepare to transition more programs online, it is critical to understand who the online learner is and what their preferences are. The Online College Students 2020 report released by the Wiley Education Services and Aslanian Market Research shares great insights that can help colleges and universities recruit, retain, and conduct virtual graduation ceremonies online. The report mentions three critical areas that institutions should consider in order to improve their academic offering during these times, and which the University has been implementing:


More than half (51%) of the respondents in the report cited affordability as their most important factor when evaluating online programs. In the past seven reports, affordability ranked as the most significant factor for online college students.

Like many other institutions across Kenya that transitioned to online classes, USIU-Africa adjusted its fees to accommodate the shift from face-to-face programs to the online platform. Given the importance of affordability for online college students, transparency about costs, showing students exactly how their tuition bill breaks down cultivates and maintains trust with our students.

“We continue to engage openly with our stakeholders, and therefore, these cost reductions have enabled us eliminate a set of fees mandated for every student. We will however continue to provide the best international education at the most affordable prices of any American accredited tertiary institution in the world,” wrote the Vice Chancellor Prof. Paul T. Zeleza in a communique to students.

Half of the respondents in the report indicated they would look for a similar online program elsewhere if their online program were not available at their chosen school. Moreover, they would not consider enrolling in an on-campus program or pursue another field of study at their chosen college or university.

“To remain relevant and attract more students, USIU-Africa is developing cutting edge programs in STEM and the Health Sciences designed to respond and tap into the current demands of the digital revolution. The skills acquired will enable a successful career in this digitalized economy and society of the 21st Century,” stated the Vice Chancellor during one of his recent keynote addresses.

University/Program reputation

According to the report, reputation consistently featured as the second most important factor for online college students when selecting a school or program, with 36% of the respondents quoting it. For over 51 years now, USIU-Africa had built a brand for herself and has continuously attracted quality prospective students due to its unparalleled reputation, and its status as a dually-accredited institution.

The institution’s faculty, who are among some of the best in the region, have been active in taking part in the University’s efforts to not only retain its student body, but to also attract potential students. They have participated in lecture series, webinars, and student and faculty meet-ups to engage with the online student who values connections, reaching out to them enhances prospects of positive decision-making.

Photo: Enrollment infographic

Although online students are seeking the convenience of learning off-campus, they still want to be a part of the university and the virtual tour, which is accessible on the website, bridges the gap by generating interest in prospective students. It also compels alumni to participate in campus-wide activities, donate to their alma mater, and entices enrollment in additional courses once students complete their degree.

Credit transfers

The report noted that twenty-nine percent of the online students were looking for the quickest path to acquiring a degree. Combining it with affordability, the ability to transfer credits toward one’s degree program ranked third most important factor for online college students.

USIU-Africa scores big here through the provision of information to prospective students about credit transfers, and any other additional information they may require, thereby allowing them to make the best-informed decisions possible.

These post-traditional students value speed throughout their enrollment process and studies. The University’s knowledgeable Academic Advisors ensure that they maintain consistent contact with the students on University policies, which ensures that USIU-Africa remains attractive to prospective students seeking transfer of credits.

Other areas in which the University is exploring in order to ensure a more holistic offering include:

Flexibility and Convenience – Whilst programs need structure to keep learners accountable and thriving, offering ways for students to tailor a program to meet their individual needs is essential for online learning. In its proposed 2020-2025 Strategic Plan currently under formulation, USIU-Africa is mulling over the possibility of online and hybrid courses setup in order to accommodate students who are always on the go, due to various personal and career commitments. With greater interconnectivity and accessibility, interactions with faculty or classmates are crucial to student success as they progress through coursework irrespective of their physical location.

Career Services – USIU-Africa prides itself on having a host of excellent student support services that complement and support the academic pillar of the student while enrolled. Through the Placement and Career Services (PACS) office, students can access résumé creation services, work with a career advisor, carry out self-assessments for job shadowing, and network with alumni, among others.

Alumni Engagement – The report showed eighty-six percent of current online students plan to have relationships with their schools after completing their online programs. Like many other institutions, USIU-Africa leverages on these relationships. Alumni are valuable marketing sources by recommending their alma mater to others during college search process. Alumni also help form partnerships with companies where they work, create employment opportunities, and donate to their institutions. Educate Your Own (EYO) and the Alumni Endowment Fund are just two examples the University’s alumni initiatives.

Universities across the world are facing insurmountable tests in terms of how they respond to the unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic by addressing issues that affect them directly. Online learning is one of the solutions embraced by many learning institutions. Forward-thinking leaders must realize that the pool of traditional students has shrunk. As such, the survival of many institutions will depend on making post-traditional students the central pillar of enrollment strategies.

Given the sustained growth of online programs, competition will abound as more institutions launch online offerings to attract this new crop of students eager to keep learning. Standing out among competitors in terms of affordability, reputation, credit transfer, speed of completion and more will guarantee sustained growth and success.

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