The Demands and Preferences of Online College Students Today
When we first started surveying and reporting the demands and preferences of online college students in 2012, little was understood about this relatively niche pocket of learners. In fact, even within adult and Continuing Education, online programs and the students they served were considered a subset of a much larger group of students. And yet, it was already clear that these students had unique needs and demands, and schools needed to better understand them if they wanted to better serve these students.
No longer a niche audience, online college students are an increasingly critical segment of the overall student population. As overall enrollments have declined over the past several years, we have seen the growth of enrollment in online programs. The increased exposure to online learning during two-plus years of the pandemic has accelerated acceptance of the modality and viability of online programs. Further, demographic patterns and economic shifts mean more individuals can begin careers before earning a full degree and elect to pursue higher education while concurrently working and balancing other responsibilities. All these factors have combined with overall improvement in the online learning experience to drive wider acceptance, interest and enrollment for online programs across the country.
Our most recent annual survey, summarized in the 2022 Online College Students Report, confirms many of our previous findings and codifies long-developing trends. Additionally, it shows how quickly things are changing and uncovers unexpected findings that are likely to define trends for the next five years. Here are a few of the key findings and trends that we believe will impact and shape the future of online higher education most.
Online College Students’ Preferences and Opinions
Online college students have several opinions that colleges should bear in mind when developing strategies to attract and recruit these students, including:
• Online education is worth the cost
• Online education allows me to complete my studies faster
• My personal productivity is improved by studying online
• To complete studies on a timely basis, summer offerings are attractive
• Online education made me more motivated to complete my studies
Moreover, a majority of both undergraduate and graduate students indicate the importance of communicating with other students. Among undergraduate and graduate online students, over 70% currently say they have a connection with other students. Engagement and interactivity are clearly important to these students, even as they study in distance-friendly programs.
Finally, colleges must consider the importance for prospective students to meet the cost and financial obligations of entering online programs. Colleges need to offer direct assistance and guidance on ways in which to meet the financial obligations of continuing their studies. Also important to online students are the career services that colleges offer them as they enter and exit their programs. They are enrolling to improve their credentials for career purposes, and colleges should offer the assistance they need to meet this important expectation.
Online Students are increasingly younger, working and have more time to dedicate to their studies.
Compared to students five or more years ago, today’s online college students are younger, likelier to be working full time and devoting more time to their education. Further, these students almost universally recognize the benefits and value of online learning, and most intend to enroll in online programs in the future. While the median age for online students is 30 years, the largest portion of online college students falls between 18–24 or 30–34 years old (both with 20% of the population.) 64% of respondents are employed full time—an 11% increase from five years ago.
Growing Interest in Certificate and Micro-credential Programs
While the majority of online students (75%) enroll in degree programs (slightly more in undergraduate vs. graduate programs), a growing number of students (close to 25%) enroll in shorter-term certificate and licensure programs and stackable certificates. Certificate programs are more often pursued at the graduate than undergraduate level. Colleges that offer short-term programs can increase their share of online students, as students continue to shift from degree to short-term programs.
Further, those who study for a degree, in large proportions, find the concept of stackable certificates attractive (more so among graduate vs. undergraduate students).
Career Motivations of Online College Students
Almost all online college students (98%) indicate that they enroll in college for a career-related reason. The most important motivations for enrolling in further study among online students are to start a new career to earn more money and “to start a new career more aligned with their interests. Schools can address these needs in part by offering career-related or employer-aligned programs. Additionally, about 40% of online college students indicate that online programs should include leadership-building opportunities. Over 80% of students also believe that online courses should group students into cohorts with similar career goals in mind.
As online education continues to play an increasingly important role in higher education, colleges and universities will dedicate more resources to attracting and serving these students. Online college student enrollments will steadily grow over the next five years, even as overall college enrollments continue to decline. To prepare, higher education leaders can start by evaluating their current online academic programs for areas of opportunities to meet the demands and preferences of online learners. Deliver career-ready programs today that help these working adults pursue their education in a supportive format and schedule. Download the full 2022 Online College Students Report to see our complete analysis of online college student trends and our predictions for the next five years.