A new survey released by The Learning House and Aslanian Market Research found fully online students, who make up 14% of all higher education enrollments, differ greatly from traditional on-campus students in some ways, and are identical to them in others.
While some of what the survey found is likely not surprising to many – like tuition and fees along with a good reputation meaning most to prospective students – other survey results were a bit less expected, and put together an interesting profile of the average online student.
Roughly 60% of online students are older than 30 years old; approximately 20% of students are younger than 25, and approximately 20% are between 25 and 30. Because the majority of online students are considered to fall into the “non-traditional” age range, and are already working, career was the primary motivation to return to school for 92% of students. Students returned to advance in their career, to change careers, to keep up to date in their current career, or to meet licensure requirements for their current job. Undergraduate students are most likely to seek a career change; graduate students are most likely seeking career advancement.
Online students frequently were found to have a “trigger” that sent them back to school. For 33% of students, it was simply career-related. Turning a “milestone” age such as 20, 30, or 40, was a trigger event for 15% of students. The economy played a key role in returning to school for 28% of online students—19% were prompted to return to school simple due to the state of the economy; 9% returned to school because they or a family member lost a job. For 11% of students, other life factors, such as moving, divorce or separation, marriage, or children leaving home, triggered the return to school.
Not surprisingly, 75% of students attend school to earn a degree. The remaining 25% seek a certificate, which a recent study has shown to have a huge financial impact on recipients, or a diploma or license.
Though two-thirds of online students are enrolled at public and private not-for-profit institutions, more students study at the University of Phoenix than any other school. Kaplan, DeVry, Capella, Ashford, Strayer, and Walden universities enroll fairly large proportions of online students, but Phoenix alone enrolls 15% of all online students. Among not-for-profit institutions, the most heavily attended are Liberty University, the University of Massachusetts, University of Maryland University College, California State University, New York University, University of California, and Nova Southeastern University. Public institutions are more likely to serve undergraduate students than graduate students, whereas private institutions are more likely to serve graduate students.
A school’s sector may not necessarily matter to students, however, as 17% of respondents didn’t know if they attended a public, private not-for-profit, or private for-profit school. Students younger than 25 are more likely to enroll at a public institution than older students and students older than 25 are more likely to enroll at for-profit institutions than younger students are. Age is no factor in enrollment at private, not-for-profit schools.
Students across the educational sectors seek education in the same fields. Business programs are overwhelmingly the most sought after, enrolling 34% of all online students, both graduate and undergraduate. Health professions programs enroll 16% of students; social sciences enroll 15% of students; education enrolls 11% of students; humanities and liberal arts programs enroll 6% of students; and 5% of students are enrolled in “other” programs. STEM programs – those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – enroll 13% of online students. It is fair to note that many STEM programs require lab work that may not always be available for completion online.
Perhaps most surprisingly, though online students seek to take all courses off-campus, they care a great deal about the physical location of their school. The vast majority of online students live within 50 miles of the school they attend, and 80% of online students live within 100 miles.
Students largely prefer shorter courses that are offered year-round rather than the standard semester-length courses typically offered in on-campus programs. Nearly half of students prefer to enroll in courses that last no longer than eight weeks, while the largest proportion of students, 40%, prefers nine- to 12-week courses.
In choosing the institution in which to enroll, students care most about reputation. Three-fourths of students said a school’s reputation was “very important.” Cost of attendance is less important, but still “very important” to 73% of online students. These results coincide with a survey released July 17 stating 62% of Americans prioritize educational quality over cost.
Recognition in one’s field of study as a high-quality institution, availability of majors, career placement, and transfer credit acceptance were also of high importance to most students. Offering fully-online programs with no on-campus requirements was considered very important to 49% of students.
Follow Anna Schumann on Twitter at @ASchumannCMN.