By Katy Kappler, Co-Founder and CEO, InScribe, and Dr. Jonathan Huck, Research Scientist, WGU Labs
The decision to apply to college, even for older students, can be a lonely, high-stakes journey. Price tags are often shrouded in mystery. Outcomes for graduates can be vague. And confusing terms (registrar, bursar, oh my!) appear at every turn.
These challenges, however, are often mitigated at traditional universities, where students can find answers and build a sense of connection with an institution by walking its grounds, smelling its flowers, and taking lively tours. Unfortunately, these advantages are absent in the online learning space.
How, then, to foster a sense of belonging among applicants who may never set foot on a physical campus? We met this challenge through a recent pilot at Western Governors University (WGU), where we created a virtual community for prospective students to connect with peers, staff, and alumni before deciding to enroll.
Creating the Virtual Enrollment Community
In our pilot, WGU Labs partnered with InScribe, a builder of virtual communities across the full student lifecycle, to create a digital space where applicants could connect with current students, enrollment counselors, and alumni volunteers to recreate the casual, authentic conversations that in-person events normally provide.
To build a user-centered community, WGU Labs first surveyed applicants’ needs. Many wanted answers from Enrollment Counselors at all hours of the night. Several distrusted information found on social media. And most craved direct interaction with peers and alumni who participated in similar programs.
With these parameters in mind, InScribe and WGU Labs created a community that would address each of these needs. First, the community allowed applicants, many of whom could only work on their applications outside of university operating hours, to ask questions and find answers at any time.
In addition, the platform ranked and categorized community answers to help future applicants with similar questions find what they needed quickly and efficiently. As a result, the community became a living knowledge repository that was constantly updating based on applicants’ specific needs.
Perhaps most importantly, the community provided a venue for WGU students and alumni to share their lived experiences. In this space, WGU’s unique mix of veterans, working parents, and lifelong learners shared their stories, gave advice, and offered encouragement to applicants — providing a sense of authentic connection they couldn’t otherwise gain from a website or even a WGU employee.
Providing Applicant Support at Scale
After successfully integrating the community into WGU’s enrollment portal, we added 3,545 participants over the course of five months. The community was monitored by our WGU Chat Team and several alumni volunteers.
The nascent community saw high levels of engagement from invited applicants, as community posts had more than 80,000 total views. Several individual posts fielded more than 4,000 views, illustrating the power of scaling answers to commonly asked questions.
The most popular posts centered on two general themes: How, exactly, do I find my way into the university? And, once I’m there, how do I succeed? The design of the community encouraged all participants to add their candid thoughts, while moderators vetted the responses for accuracy.
Identifying a Link Between Participation and Enrollment
To gauge the efficacy of the community across a few key points, we conducted a randomized control trial and analyzed the behavior across both groups. While we didn’t immediately see a significant increase in overall matriculation in the study group, we did discover some key trends that offer an encouraging view of the value of the community for applicants and WGU.
Notably, applicants who actively participated in the community (by viewing conversations in the community, posting new questions, or answering fellow applicants) were more than twice as likely to matriculate than those who did not participate. This result does not correspond to a causal link but highlights a potential connection. The forum could allow enhanced communication with active participants in the future.
In addition, applicants in the virtual community reported higher levels of satisfaction (via a higher Net Promoter Score) with the enrollment experience. Alumni moderators also enjoyed having the opportunity to connect with incoming students and give back to their institution in a meaningful way.
Finally, questions posed in the community provided critical insights for WGU’s Enrollment Team about where applicants were getting stuck, and what might prevent them from continuing with the enrollment process. By taking action to improve these steps in the enrollment workflow, WGU could improve the experience for applicants and improve matriculation rates in the future.
Designing Robust Enrollment Communities
During this pilot, WGU and InScribe learned a great deal about how to effectively design a virtual community to enhance the user experience for applicants, moderators, and participating alumni. These lessons can guide others looking to build similar solutions.
First, we discovered that it’s more effective to design the community around interests and identities (e.g.. student parents, degree completers, etc.), rather than drawing a strict demarcation across departments or majors. After all, college tours aren’t separated by major. The same principle should hold at online institutions.
In addition, we learned that it helps to draw very clear distinctions between areas for tactical questions (how do I submit my community college transcripts?) and aspirational questions (am I making the right decision for my family?). Clearly highlighting these distinctions improves the discoverability of community resources and ensures that moderators are fielding questions they’re best equipped to answer.
We also believe that enrollment communities aren’t just for online colleges. Traditional universities are already rethinking their application-to-enrollment model, especially as adult and online learners become increasingly vital members of the campus community.
Building a thriving, virtual community is an investment that can yield positive, long-term benefits for applicants, students, and the university. Although many students don’t have the advantage of participating in campus tours or several weeks of intensive, in-person orientation, that doesn’t mean they can’t be provided with the same level of support and the opportunity to establish a strong sense of belonging before classes even begin.
At WGU, we demonstrated the power of virtual communities to replicate this experience for students at a distance, and we are excited to see how the solution will continue to evolve and add value in the years to come.
Katy Kappler is the co-founder and CEO of InScribe, an innovative collaboration platform that helps improve student engagement and build community with a focus on supporting non-traditional and underserved student populations.
Jonathan Huck, PhD is a Research Scientist at WGU Labs, where he conducts evaluation studies for educational products and services.