Leadership Summit - Part 1: The Secret to Unlocking Lower Student Acquisition Costs


Brief Abstract

Higher education leaders today must become innovative on how to combat the consistent increase in marketing acquisition costs and the volatile retention rates. This session is designed for a panel of online, marketing, enrollment, and retention experts to discuss the “lost students” and how to target, support, and bring them back.

This session is included in the Leadership Summit at OLC Innovate 2023, focused on the theme of The Engaged Leader: Attending To The Complexities Of Digital Learning.  With the rapidly-changing environment of online and blended education, it is essential to understand the complexities and impacts on teaching and learning in order to create digital learning environments that meet the needs of those they serve. Today’s leaders in digital learning must be attuned to the needs and priorities of many people: faculty, staff, students, executive leaders, vendors and business partners, and the community


Thomas Cavanagh, Ph.D. is Vice Provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida. In this role he oversees all classroom technology and the distance learning strategy, policies, and practices of one of the nation’s largest universities, serving 68,000 students, where online learning represents more than 47% of the university's annual credit hours. In his career, Tom has administered e-learning development for both academic (public and private) and industrial (Fortune 500, government/military) audiences. He has been recognized with a number of awards including the WCET Richard Jonsen Award, the USDLA Outstanding Leadership Award, and been named an Online Learning Consortium Fellow. He is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and serves on a number of national advisory boards. He is also an award-winning author of several mystery novels.

Extended Abstract

Since the pandemic hit more than two years ago, 1.4 million students who were registered for college have dropped out, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Perhaps even more disturbing is the rapidly rising number of Americans who have earned some college credits, but no degree. In 2020, that applied to 36 million students; in two short years, that figure has climbed to 39 million. The question becomes how do we bring lost students back to your institution? This session is designed to spearhead the conversation amongst higher education leaders around online, marketing, enrollment, and retention.


Many students who opt for distance education work full-time or have other obligations and enjoy the flexibility distance education offers. Course availability and flexibility become a central topic of discussion for any virtual student. What is your higher education institution doing to ensure course availability and flexibility? What can higher education institutions do to offer student support services online and what else can be done to engage students?


A SimpsonScarborough survey found that higher education institutions spend between $429 and $623 per enrolled student, per year, on marketing. As far as advertising, colleges and universities collectively spent $2.2 billion dollars in 2019. In recent years, digital marketing has been a driving force to increase the number of students, but the cost to acquire each student keeps rising. What can institutions do to drive this student acquisition cost lower?


Fall 2021 data provided by NSCRC shows a national enrollment decline of 6%. While some of this decline is accounted for by decreased applicants and fewer new students, it is important to note that stop-out students increased sharply during the pandemic. This topic will uncover the best practices for re-engaging college students and how reengaging students can drive enrollment. How does your higher education institution currently identify the reasons why a student has left? How quickly is your higher education institution working to re-engage the student after he or she has left? How is your higher education institution deploying a human connection that helps guide students in ways that are more precise than self-service options?  


According to NSCRC, 31.6% of students who enrolled in 2015 were no longer enrolled six years later and had not received their degree. There are many times a student walks away from a higher education institution because they do not feel connected to that institution. When higher education leaders look at retention, they first must first understand the barriers students are facing, and then design specific strategies to overcome those barriers to reach graduation. 

Level of Participation

This session will be an interactive panel discussion with each panelist being provided approximately five to seven minutes to introduce their thoughts on online, marketing, enrollment, and retention. Following the introduction, attendees will pose challenges that they have faced or questions they have about these four areas.

 Session Goals

Individuals attending this panel discussion will be able to discuss several topics centered around bringing lost students back to the university. Participants will be able to describe the best practices for deploying an innovative engagement strategy. And lastly, they will be able to articulate the necessary considerations for implementing a re engagement strategy that drives student enrollment and success.