The Demands & Preferences of Online College Students Today
When EducationDynamics first started surveying and reporting on the demands and preferences of online college students in 2012, little was understood about this relative niche pocket of students. In fact, even within what was termed “adult and continuing education,” online programs and the students they served were considered a subset of a much larger group of students. We started the nationwide study because we recognized even then that these students had unique needs and demands, and a better understanding was required if schools were to better serve them.
Now in its 11th edition, the Online College Students Report continues to help schools and higher education leaders understand the students that pursue higher education through online programs. No longer a niche audience, online college students are a growing – and increasingly critical – segment of the overall student population. As overall enrollments have declined over the past eleven years and continue to decline, we have seen the growth of enrollment in online programs. The increased exposure to online learning during the two plus years of the pandemic has also led to wider acceptance of the modality and viability of online programs. Further, demographic patterns and shifts in the economy mean more individuals can begin careers before earning a full degree and elect to pursue higher education while concurrently working and balancing other elements of life. 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.
This 2022 report confirms many of our prior findings and codifies long-developing trends. Additionally, it shows how quickly things are changing and uncovers unexpected findings that are likely to define trends over the next five years. Looking back at data from our 2017 report as a comparison benchmark, we identified the following changes that are having a major impact on online education today.
Online Education is Growing in Acceptance Among Students
In our 2022 Online College Students report, 87 percent of undergraduate and graduate online students agreed or strongly agreed that online education was worth the cost. This is a 16 percent increase from the opinions of online college students five years ago indicating a growing acceptance and interest for online programs at post-secondary institutions. Today’s online college students see value in the online modality because it allows non-traditional and working students of all ages to pursue a credential while balancing a family and other priorities. Forward-looking colleges and universities are developing flexible online and in-demand programs for their academic curriculums.
Age is Not a Determining Factor in Who Studies Online
The median age of online students is higher than 30. However, there is also a large, and growing, segment of the online student population under the age of 24 years old. The data indicates that age is no longer a determining factor in who enrolls in an online program over a traditional in-person course. Distance education is becoming increasingly popular among all ages and its apparent in the growing online enrollment rates at colleges and universities.
Certificate and Microcredential Programs are Growing
In 2017, our Online College Students Report indicated that 20 percent of respondents were enrolled in a non-degree credential. Today, nearly 25 percent of online college students are enrolled in a certificate or microcredential program. Growth is especially pronounced at the graduate level, in which nearly 30 percent of graduate students were enrolled in a non-degree credential; compared to just 21 percent five years ago. The increase in certificate and microcredential enrollments reflect that student demands have shifted. Students no longer can spend extended periods of time on their education and are seeking alternative learning opportunities to enhance their resumes.
Over the next five years, we expect more online college student trends to emerge as online enrollments continue to rise and as distance learning solidifies its mark in the higher education landscape. As online education continues to play an increasingly important role in higher education, colleges and universities should dedicate more resources to attracting and serving these students in ways that will only reinforce these trends. Higher education leaders can be ready to meet the demands and preferences of today’s non-traditional, online, and working students of all ages. Download the full report now and start developing distance education programs that attract and retain online college students.