New Report Provides Insight Into Experiences of Prospective Students at Largest Online Institutions

New analysis from InsideTrack studies how largest online higher education programs engage prospective students during the enrollment process

PORTLAND, ORE. (July 28, 2020) — InsideTrack, the student success nonprofit that pioneered the use of coaching for higher education enrollment, career readiness and student success, today released a new analysis of prospective student inquiry handling practices among the largest online higher education programs in the country. The analysis, which involved submitting inquiries and follow-up questions to the 113 colleges and universities with the largest levels of online student enrollment, found significant differences in the prospective student experience across these institutions.

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, online programs were already one of the only areas of enrollment growth in higher education,” said Jim Fong, chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. “Now, with more displaced workers looking to upskill and Gen Z high school graduates considering online learning, it is even more critical that institutions effectively handle inquiries from prospective online students. The insights from this study provide an important snapshot of how they are doing.”

This report is part of InsideTrack’s ongoing efforts to provide higher education leaders with insights into how to tailor student services and outreach to an increasingly diverse and distributed student population. Each research project is rooted in direct experience working with students and student support teams, offering decision-makers an opportunity to learn about the practices and approaches that are working for other institutions.

“As institutions rush to expand their online program offerings, they must also revisit their inquiry handling processes, to ensure they are focused on helping prospective online students make informed enrollment decisions,” said Dave Jarrat, senior vice president of strategic engagement and growth at InsideTrack. “We hope that by putting ourselves in the shoes of prospective students and sharing our experiences, we can support administrators working to make their enrollment processes more student-centric.”

To conduct the study, enrollment experts from InsideTrack inquired about two separate online programs at each of the 113 institutions via website form, email and phone. They later submitted a follow-up question to each institution via email and a final follow-up via text message. The study included both undergraduate and graduate online programs at institutions of all types, including public, private nonprofit and for-profit institutions, as well as community colleges.  All inquiries and follow-ups took place between 8am and 7pm local time on weekdays from January 29 to March 12, 2020.

After all inquiries and follow-ups were complete, each institution was scored on a 1-10 scale for responsiveness, quality and overall experience. The study rated responsiveness based on the timeliness of the response, the appropriateness of the volume of follow-up, and the suitability of the communication channels used for follow-up. Quality scores included assessment of the complexity of the inquiry process, the level of developmental support provided, the comprehensiveness of information and the level of personalization.

Few Programs Get High Marks

Only four institutions — 2 public, 1 private and 1 for-profit — received an overall score of 8.0 or above. On average, private and for-profit institutions received higher overall scores, with both institution types averaging a score of 4.9 out of 10. Public colleges and universities received an average score of 4.5 and community colleges averaged 3.9. The most common factors for lower scores included:

  • Excessive follow-up: particularly high volumes of phone calls with no voicemails and/or emails with repetitive, non-personalized content.
  • Nonresponsiveness: failure to reply at all to inquiries and follow-ups made via certain communication channels
  • Aggressiveness: overly pushy or salesly communication styles
  • Transactional, non-developmental engagement: failure to support the prospective student in making an informed enrollment decision
  • Lack of knowledge/ability to support: not being able to provide the information requested
Phone Inquiries Most Likely To Receive Timely Response

According to the study, phone inquiries generated the most timely response, with phone calls being answered immediately by 100% of for-profit, 92% of private, 87% of community college and 63% of public programs.  Email inquiries were least likely to get a timely response, with only 56% of for-profit, 36% of public, 35% of community college and 14% of private programs responding to emails within 30 minutes. For inquiries made via website forms, 73% of private, 68% of for-profit, 42% of community college and 40% of public programs responded within 30 minutes.

Despite Enrollment Concerns, Many Inquiries Go Unanswered

Only public and community college programs failed to respond to phone inquiries entirely, with 20% of public and 7% of community college programs failing to respond within 20 days. For-profit programs were most likely to not respond to an inquiry by email 31%, followed by community college 14%, private 11% and public 3% programs. Community College programs were most likely to not respond to an inquiry by website form 17%, followed by for-profit 13%, private 5% and public 2% programs.

Only 11% of institutions responded to a follow-up question sent via text message.

A report summarizing the results, which links to an interactive data dashboard is available here.


About InsideTrack

InsideTrack is passionate about student success. We partner with institutions and organizations to improve enrollment, persistence, completion and career readiness. Our student support methodology uncovers first hand feedback about student goals and challenges. Through strategic guidance, staff training and student coaching, we help institutions turn this feedback into actionable insights that drive better student outcomes. As a nonprofit member of the Strada Education Network, we offer partners access to a comprehensive range of student success solutions as well as the latest research and insights on student success. We’ve supported more than 2 million students since 2001 and currently serve over 4,000 programs. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @InsideTrack.

Related Press Release Articles