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DENVER — In 2009, at the height of the online education boom, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) was experiencing barely a rumble.

Online enrollments at for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry University grew by 22 and 37 percent that year. Nonprofit universities, too, were scaling up their online arms. But at NOVA, the online student population increased 7 percent — the same rate as its on-campus population.

“Our share of the adult population wasn’t changing very much,” said Steven Sachs, vice president for instructional and information technology at NOVA, in a talk here Friday at the Educause 2012 conference.

Sachs’ talk, called “Engagement Beyond the LMS,” rammed home the idea that attracting and keeping students in the incredibly competitive online market often does not have much to do with the axes of affordability and instructional quality. And a legacy brand that is respected regionally only takes you so far.

The bigger factor, he said, is often an institution’s ability to cater to the particular desires of online students, especially their desire to be looked after.

The Northern Virginia technology chief recalled his college’s leadership wondering, in 2009, why students were opting for institutions that not only did not have a local brand, but often were more expensive.

Research turned up a number of possible factors, said Sachs. For example, only 22 percent of adult students in their market wanted an associate degree; more than twice that many wanted a bachelor’s.

But the bit of data NOVA fixated on was a figure from Eduventures, the higher ed consulting firm, that indicated that the college's private-sector competitors were spending more than half their budgets on student support services -- encompassing financial aid counseling, tutoring, graduation advising, job placement, and cracking the whip on delinquent students.

At the time, NOVA’s online support infrastructure was nowhere close. The number of staff devoted to support services for the institution’s entire online population was half the size of the ground support staff at the smallest of its six campuses, said Sachs. And they were focused mainly on instructional support.

“We assumed our students would get their support services on campus, and that our [campus] support services would recognize the needs of the online learner and support them,” said Sachs. “And that just didn’t happen.”

So the community college invested $2 million in a new project, the “Next Level Initiative,” aimed at steering the six-campus system toward being more amenable to online students, with a focus on boosting student support services.

It has not been easy, said Sachs. Recruiting and keeping staff for 18 new online support positions “has been a nightmare,” he said. “Just the interviews alone eat you alive, time-wise.”

And outsourcing parts of the support services, such as tutoring (SmarThinking) and online exam proctoring (ProctorU), came with its own challenges. “We had to document and change our business practices, and then communicate [those changes] to our students,” said Sachs.

Despite the challenges, NOVA believes its sharper focus on support has paid off. While the number of fully online enrollments has not increased since fall 2008, the proportion of students enrolled in at least one online course jumped from 41 to 61 percent in that time. And the percentage of students who take a second online course leaped from 38 to 66 percent. 

And contrary to the marginal growth of online enrollment NOVA was seeing several years ago, the college increased its online enrollments by 48 percent last year — outpacing on-campus enrollments by a factor of four. Those additional enrollments, which total the equivalent of about 1,400 students, have netted NOVA about $2.5 million so far, said Sachs.

Perhaps most tellingly the online “success gap” at NOVA — the difference in completion between students in online versus in-person courses — has fallen by half, from 16 percent in fall 2008 to 8 percent last spring.

Northern Virginia has not studied in any scientific detail the correlation between different aspects of its Next Level Initiative and the success of specific students, but Sachs said the college is fairly certain that these changes have much to do with its heightened focus on online support.

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