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IOWA CITY — While COVID-19 mostly hurt enrollment across traditional college and university campuses, it has had the opposite effect on some less traditional higher ed programs — like the University of Iowa’s new online Master of Business Administration degree.
When administrators pitched the program in fall of 2018 — with plans to enroll its first students in fall 2019 — they set a modest goal of attracting 40 students three times a year. In spring 2020, just months after its launch, total enrollment in the UI online MBA program sat at a healthy 83.
Then the pandemic hit, shuttering campuses and forcing all faculty and staff — whether they had much online experience or not — to shift their curriculum to virtual mode. That benefited programs already equipped and ready for online learning, like the online MBA.
“We’ve been seeing record numbers ever since, and it really hasn't slowed down,” said Ali Yildirim, executive director of marketing and recruiting for the UI Tippie College of Business, noting enrollment has soared to about 120 students three times a year.
“The number of fully online students in the Iowa MBA is now close to 500, where it was zero two years ago,” he said.
Total spring 2021 enrollment in the UI online MBA program, to be exact, was 434. And those aren’t all people living within driving distance of the UI main campus in Iowa City or the off-campus locations in Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities, where the traditional UI professional MBA program has been offered since 1960, or in Des Moines where it has been offered since the early 1990s.
“Part of our original motivation was to reach parts of Iowa that are underserved with graduate business education,” Yildirim said. “The addition of online courses has been a game changer in that sense.”
The new program’s hundreds of online students span the state, expanding the UI’s MBA footprint to 42 Iowa counties and 40 states, plus the District of Columbia.
Students are signing up from places like Illinois, Texas, Minnesota and California, which also have competing reputable online MBA offerings.
“We are not the only top-rated online program,” Yildirim said. “It is a competitive space. And the odds are a lot of schools probably have deeper pockets than we do.”
The UI touts its online program as a way for people seeking to accelerate their careers to earn an MBA in two years, although some students could choose to stretch it longer. Under the current tuition, the entire onliine MBA program costs a student $31,500, according to the UI.
With COVID-19 concerns waning and campuses reverting to more normal collegiate experiences, UI’s Tippie College of Business is looking to retain its extended pool of student prospects by employing some outside help.
Earlier this month, the university — on behalf of its business college — issued a request for qualifications from partners, vendors and communication agencies capable of planning, managing, tracking, and optimizing Tippie’s “growing paid advertising operation.”
“We are looking at opportunities to bring talent and help expand the university’s footprint to other geographies,” Yildirim said.
Historically, most of the college’s enrollment marketing has happened in-house — given its expertise in digital and social media marketing and its focus on physical location.
“We are essentially looking to scale those,” he said.
Although Tippie intends to continue tapping its own marketing prowess to grow enrollment, taking a hybrid approach that involves external vendors could keep it competitive in the extended market — from contiguous states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois to those beyond the Midwest.
“The other thing that's interesting is California and Texas — places where we're not doing a ton of active marketing, we are seeing enrollment,” Yildirim said.
Employing outside partners that have a better understanding of the larger competitive landscape could bolster UI’s efforts to both maintain and further boost its broader enrollment.
The UI’s request for qualifications, which has a response deadline of Thursday, notes potential partners will be asked to, among other things, manage and optimize more than 25 Google ad campaigns across paid search, display, remarketing, discovery and video platforms; target ads and access “niche third-party audiences” and private marketplace deals; procure non-digital marketing ads over broadcast radio, TV and print publications; and execute paid campaigns across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn and other social media;
Although Tippie has had occasional advertising contracts with outside vendors, Yildirim said, “this is certainly the first time I’m doing a bid for our paid advertising operation.”
“This probably would be the most comprehensive and most long-term,” he said.
Unlike Tippie’s virtual enrollment boom, most of Iowa’s colleges and universities welcomed fewer students last fall amid the pandemic, continuing an enrollment slide and accelerating a steep enrollment drop projected to arrive in 2025 due to changing demographics.
But UI’s Tippie College of Business remained the institution’s second-most popular undergraduate college — behind the largest College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — and was among the handful that reported enrollment increases in fall 2020, compared with 2019.
Tippie in total boasts more than 4,500 students in six undergraduate majors and six doctorate programs, along with its MBA and master’s programs.
As part of its online MBA enrollment explosion is an uptick in diversity — with 38 percent of its spring 2021 students identifying as female, up nearly 7 percentage points from last year, and nearly 9 percent of its spring students identifying as underrepresented minorities — excluding Asian Americans and foreign citizens.
“This percentage has more than doubled since the same time a year ago,” Yildirim said. “It goes without saying, as the program size increases, it’s important to note it requires more students to move the needle in percentages.”
In addition to marketing, Tippie — at least during the pandemic — sought to increase its online enrollment by pulling down some of the red tape that made everything more difficult during the pandemic. For all of 2021, the program has waived its requirement for a GMAT or GRE score and it waived application fees.
And, to meet the resulting demand, Tippie grew its swath of instructors involved in the fully online MBA program. Although the pandemic forced all faculty to move online for a time, before the fall 2019 program launch, 15 to 16 instructors taught some form of web-based course.
“Currently, our fully online MBA Program has more than 50 instructors involved through the spring 2021 semester,” Yildirim said.
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