“Online College Students Report 2024” Highlights Growing Desire for Transparency, Expediency in Academic Experience

By: Nancy Kim Feb 27, 2024

EducationDynamics, a leading enrollment management agency specializing in higher education, today released the findings of its seminal study, the “Online College Students Report 2024.” Now in its 13th year, the comprehensive paper details the demands, preferences and motivations driving the decisions of today’s online college students.

Using proprietary data gleaned from survey responses of more than 3,000 online college students who are, were, or will study in a completely online program, the report provides higher education leaders, enrollment managers and marketers with an in-depth look at the behaviors and motivations of the modern student.  

“As the landscape of higher education continues to evolve, the ‘Online College Students Report 2024’ serves as a crucial compass for institutions navigating the digital realm,” said EducationDynamics CEO Bruce Douglas. “It is a dynamic tool offering insights into the nuanced preferences and demands of a diverse online student population, providing a roadmap for colleges and universities to thrive in the digital age. We believe this report is a catalyst for transformative growth, guiding institutions towards a future where online education is not just an option but a dynamic force shaping the future of higher education.”

Chief among this year’s findings was an emphasis on the pivotal role cost, availability, and time to completion play in attracting and retaining online learners:

Career Outcomes Remain Top Priority

The report emphasized the connection between enrollment and future earnings, with nearly all respondents reporting career-focused motivations. Respondents gravitated to institutions that offered both degree and non-degree options, credit for prior experience, and flexible study formats. 

Online students see education as a means to an end; a path to promotion or a vehicle for channeling previous experience into a new career. Credit-bearing certificates, licensure programs and stackable credentials are attractive to students looking for both near-term benefits and long-term opportunities. Offering credit for prior experience can fast-track career growth. In fact, two-thirds of non-degree respondents reported enrolling in a stackable credential program, while 80 percent of students planned to pursue additional credentials in their current field or a related program.

Affordability Drives Decision-Making

Prudent online students crave transparency, especially with fiscal information. Respondents often cited the importance of financial details – tuition, fees, associated costs – in their enrollment decisions. More than half reported affordability as an important factor when considering schools, with one-third citing cost as the most important factor. More importantly, the cost of tuition and fees often are the most significant factor in prospective students choosing to defer college. About one-third of respondents who delayed applying did so because of the financial burden of enrollment.

Flexibility A Must for Adult Learners and Young, Driven Students

As many of today’s students are future-focused and career driven, the majority are already employed full time (58 percent) or part time (21 percent). Students who entered the workforce directly after high school may not have the flexibility to adjust their work around their studies, while older adult learners must incorporate academic pursuits into work and family responsibilities. Flexibility was so important to study participants that the availability of asynchronous and flexible programs could overcome cost concerns, with 30 percent of respondents stating that format, schedule, or location were more important than fees.

Students Move Faster Than Ever Before

The timeline from interest to enrollment has dramatically decreased, with 50 percent of respondents applying within one week after inquiring, and 80 percent sharing they enrolled at the first school that offered acceptance. Once accepted, many online students reported seeking the fastest route to completion and gravitating to schools offering shorter, more intense sessions over longer, traditional semesters. More than 50 percent of study participants expected courses to begin within one month of acceptance, and 15 percent expected courses to begin within one week.

The urgency with which prospective online students search for programs and select their institution underscores the need for a shift in enrollment strategies. Information and enrollment support must be readily available, especially in the digital space. As students increasingly turn to search engines and school websites for information, colleges and universities must optimize their websites for discoverability, clearly define academic pathways with short-term and long-term benefits, promote its flexible learning modalities and provide financial transparency. Finally, institutions need to proactively connect with this population, leveraging social media and streaming platforms to communicate and interact during each phase of the decision-making process.

The “Online College Students Report 2024” is the third resource released by EducationDynamics during the academic year, following the “2023 Higher Education Landscape Report” and the “Marketing and Enrollment Management Benchmarks Report.” In June, the award-winning enrollment management company will release its “eLearning Index.”

Data for the “Online College Students Report 2024” was collected at the start of the 2023-2024 academic year (Fall 2023), between November and December. The report is available for free download on the EducationDynamics website.

For more information, please visit educationdynamics.com or contact Senior Director of Marketing and Corporate Communication Eric McGee at [email protected].  

About EducationDynamics

EducationDynamics is the transformative marketing and enrollment management partner that helps schools meet the challenges and opportunities of serving today’s student. With over 35 years of helping schools serve non-traditional students, EducationDynamics is the leading provider of unbundled marketing and enrollment management services focused on adult-focused and online programs. EducationDynamics helps colleges and universities achieve a shared mission of expanding opportunity through education by helping schools better understand, engage, and serve students in a rapidly changing higher education environment. For more information, please visit EducationDynamics.com.