Online and Trade Schools: The Impact of Gender

published on
September 23, 2019

In Part 1 of this two-part series, S/M Director of Strategy, Brian Gee, dives deep into the world of higher education to explore the surprising differences between university students. The result? A stereotype in need of overturning, and some insights into how change can be effected in the industry.

Ready for a surprise? We thought so.

When you think about students in higher education at a traditional university or college, you’re likely conjuring up the tried and true stereotypes: the lifelong high achiever fulfilling their destiny, or the social butterfly just trying to “figure it all out.” But those two stereotypes account for only 35% of the higher education market.* Yep – just over a third.


Now, picture a thirty-something student with a full-time job. Perhaps a spouse and a couple of kids to round out their family. Or an early twenty-something, a year or two out of high school who wants something more active and satisfying than a desk job. Got the image?

You’re now picturing at least 40% of students enrolled at an institution of higher education. And very few of them are at traditional universities.

In reality, they tend to be at online-only universities. Many more are at trade schools. Which led us to a serious question: If “traditional” students defy our stereotypes, then how diverse are online and trade students from one another – Both in gender and in their decision-making windows? So we trained our Digital Insights Suite on two industry-leading schools as examples.

What did we find? Well, that’s another surprise.

Different Paths, Different Demographics

While online- and trade-school students similarly choose to pursue their education outside of a traditional university setting, there are several key differences between the two types of education consumers. Here’s one key separator (and why it matters to marketers):

Mind the (Gender) Gap.

As recently as ten years ago, online universities were majority male institutions. That’s not the case anymore.

Today, students at online universities are slightly more likely to identify as female (51% to 49%). This holds true across most programs including business and healthcare. Only computer science programs enroll more men than women.

While the gender gap may have closed in online universities, trade schools have yet to even the gender scales. Over half (56%) of trade school students identify as male with only 44% identifying as female.

Marketing Insight:

Online universities should ensure their marketing matches the diversity of their classrooms while increasing promotion of STEM programs for women. And as brands continue to play an increasingly important role in social causes, online universities should partner with employers and organizations who seek to advance female leadership, from management positions all the way to the boardroom.

Trade schools have a higher hurdle to overcome. In addition to updating male-dominant websites and collateral to reflect a new level of gender diversity, trade schools should consider taking a leadership position within the industries that employ their graduates, calling employer-partners to the highest standards in workplace ethics and emphasizing the importance of women in leadership positions.

The story runs deeper.

There’s a key difference between the online student and the trade school student in terms of their decision window – and it has a serious impact on when marketers should make first contact. That insight is coming up in Part 2 of this series.

Want to see what insights our Strategy Team can uncover for you with our Digital Insights Suite? Contact us today with your most pressing business question, and we’ll help you find the answer.

*Source: The Differentiated University |

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