Conversations with higher education leaders about online learning, the future, and the pandemic’s lasting impact on higher education.

An interview with: Courtney Borton – Golden Gate University – Chief of Marketing, Vice Provost of Marketing & Enrollment

Courtney Borton is a long-time higher education leader and marketer, with stints helping university clients at Pearson, University of Central Florida, University of Colorado System, and Golden Gate University. She excels at building all the marketing and enrollment elements that drive successful online student programs.

Dr. George Rohde interviewed Courtney. Here are edited excerpts of her expertise, with a particular focus on the online operations at Golden Gate University.

Rohde: As we approach Fall 2022, what does the competitive world look like for online programs? What are the dynamics?

Courtney Borton: That’s a great question and let me just set the stage. Golden Gate University (GGU), even before the pandemic, faced some daunting competition. And one thing I quickly learned throughout the years of working within higher education and launching online programs is, “Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come [and enroll in the program].” GGU competes against several California institutions in addition to the saturated online program market. That means as we launch programs, we need to be strategic, really thinking through what programs students are looking for and need today, in addition to how we can differentiate those programs and win against the competition. It was true before the pandemic, and now with more and more schools offering online programs than ever before, it’s true today.

Rohde: That’s a helpful background, but let’s go a little deeper with this topic. How is GGU really setting itself apart, specifically in the online program offerings amongst competitors today?

Courtney Borton: GGU has a rich history of being an innovator in higher education and is now expanding into other markets globally. We are on a mission to provide radically affordable access to higher education for students around the world. With a vision to provide online programs throughout the world, GGU is being very intentional about offering programs that students are asking for. These programs include business, technology, and law, to name just a few. Over the next several years, we will be continuing to launch innovative high-market demand programs. The key is to ensure you are meeting the needs of your students.

It’s worth noting that regardless of the program offerings over the years, I’ve noticed adult students are really looking for three things: 1) affordability; 2) entry points (meaning how quickly they can start from the point they engage in the process); and 3) how education helps them meet goals – which could be a promotion, a career change, family motivation, or updating their knowledge. This was true when I launched my first online program in 2011, and it’s still true today. The difference during the pandemic was that the students 18 to 24, who traditionally went to a campus, were suddenly forced online when that was the only option for a time. Guess what — many students liked the flexibility of online, the ability to hold down a full-time job and attend class, the delivery model — all those things that we use to highlight the value of online! But as the world enters a new phase of the pandemic, the 18 to 24 crowd is realizing, like the adult students have for years, that online programs need to be of high quality to keep the student because there is so much choice [of other institutions] in the marketplace when you aren’t limited to the geographic constraint of being on a college campus. I think those three reasons are why adult students choose an online program, and they will continue to be front and center in this new phase.

Rohde: But don’t the students miss the interaction? As a professor at Depaul University, my returning students sure are glad to be back. What are you seeing and how does it impact online marketers?

Courtney Borton: Honestly, it really depends. Modality is a student preference about how they prefer to learn. In my opinion, there have been preconceived notions about learning online. During the pandemic, when we were all forced to go remote, some of those notions by students and even faculty changed. Students were forced to either go remote (often Zoom sessions), change to an online program/course, or drop out. Many tried the online program/course route during the pandemic and not only enjoyed the experience but also appreciated the flexibility. Lives continue to get busier and busier, but students do not want to sacrifice education, so that flexibility means everything.

Rohde: What about the service model of delivery of online education? What are you seeing in the marketplace?

Courtney Borton: With the push to all online during the pandemic, I think some service gaps were exposed and may have increased on some campuses. The fully online population has a built-in expectation of a little more support — there’s advising, a success coach, a help desk, professor outreach — always resources that students can tap into on demand. An online student wants to send an email or chat request and get help right now. Compare that to the experience on campus where you would make an appointment with the department you need help from 3 days from now, and you patiently wait. That “make an appointment” approach just won’t work as well as it used to now that students have experienced the “higher touch” support.

Rohde: What are you seeing surrounding reengagement of stop-out students? Are colleges really pursuing this population?

Courtney Borton: Most of the time, as a marketer, my focus was on “net new” students. There’s a department for retention and preventing students from stopping out, and during the pandemic, there was a little more focus and soft touch applied to the student experience. But as for extensive outreach to reengage students that stopped out or were admitted and didn’t enroll, there were some limited efforts underway but those were just scratching the surface.

Rohde: So, people are stretched thin, probably impacted heavily by the Great Resignation as in every other industry. So, is this an opportunity for myFootpath’s Operation ReEngage offering?

Courtney Borton: People see the issue, no question, but they just don’t have the resources. No one is just an advisor, or financial aid coordinator, or a marketer. Everyone, and I mean everyone, must pitch in and do more jobs with less resources. So, when universities look at reengagement, it’s an area where they likely have limited resources and expertise (editor’s note: because the focus and measurement is on net new students), and someone on the staff has to do the reengagement work in addition to everything else. People often just don’t get to it on the list.

Rohde: So, people are stretched thin, probably impacted heavily by the Great Resignation as in every other industry, so is this an opportunity for myFootpath’s Operation ReEngage offering?

Courtney Borton: There is definitely an opportunity to partner with companies like myFootpath. University administrators are constantly battling the Great Resignation since the pandemic and doing what we can to backfill and recruit positions. If I had to look specifically for reengagement expertise, I think it would have been tough to find it, as it’s a limited skillset to start with. The expertise and staffing that myFootpath brings to reengagement could make a big difference at a lot of institutions today.

Rohde: Thank you, Courtney, for sharing your insights today. Your perspective has been invaluable to me, and we hope it helps our readers at their institutions.