A new survey reaffirms our general understanding of the demographics of the majority of students enrolled in fully online programs. A study of 1500 recent and potential online students conducted by Education Dynamics and Learninghouse, an online education management company, reports that today’s average online student is:
- employed full-time
- prefers to enroll in non-profit schools located in her own area
- at 33 is older than the traditional college student 18-22 age bracket
- has an average income of about $65,000 a year
- majors in business-related fields
This information may help to resolve one of the thorniest problems faced by community colleges across the country, which struggle to balance the needs of students who want career training and students who want to transfer to a 4-year college for a bachelor’s degree program.
One way we can do this is to apply this new knowledge to better focus online programming. We can use such information to shape and define what online education should be and who would benefit from it the most. First, the information about race and age suggests that online programming needs to appeal to a more diverse group. Colleges can adjust their curriculum to draw more students to online programs. Second, the higher income may indicate that online programming is currently too expensive for anyone with an average or below-average income. Compare the online student income to the $14,400 a year average income of most college students (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2008) and the 2009 average income of $45,000 of college graduates age 25-34 (National Center for Education Statistics,2009). It’s possible that this difference in income is directly reflective of who can afford online education. Colleges can take this into consideration when assessing tuition, fees, and student funding.
Finally, the fact that most online students favor business-oriented programs is important. Certificates and licenses are more career-focused than traditional degree programs, and many companies use them to train their employees and increase the qualifications of their workforces. The study shows that the preponderance of business majors among online students may be caused by a self-selection process: those who are enrolled in fully online programs also tend to major in business and be more interested in using online education to further their careers. Though these figures may change as more colleges and universities shift more of their degree programs into online as well as traditional face-to-face formats, right now it seems that business-oriented programs, especially certificate and licensure courses of study, should be the focus of online education development. According to InsideHigherEd, “the survey results affirm the demand for online pathways to non-degree credentials such as certificates and licenses. More than a quarter of the respondents said they were interested in a certificate or licensure program.”
Focusing online education development on career education could resolve the divisive dilemma faced by community colleges, specifically the conflict between the dual goals of providing career training and two-year associate’s degree programs. The task for community colleges is to try and balance the two often very different goals of their mission and strike the right allocation of funds between these two goals, but it isn’t easy. In Massachusetts, this struggle has turned contentious. Governor Deval Patrick has spearheaded a legislative initiative to unite all of the state’s community colleges under the same state-wide governance umbrella. In a January 2012 statement, he said, “A central piece of our economic recovery strategy is ensuring that the skills of our workforce meet the evolving needs of our employers. That’s why we are advancing a new and innovative mission for our community colleges, to train highly-qualified candidates for jobs in every corner of the Commonwealth.” He also announced in his 2012 State of the Commonwealth address that
“In a unified system, we could create “learn and earn” programs across the entire state enabling students to get practical workplace experience while completing course work. In a unified system, students would earn a certificate of workplace readiness that would open doors in their chosen field anywhere in the state. And as they near course completion, one-stop career centers right on campus would help them move into, or back into, the workplace.”
There has been significant criticism of this plan: the Massachusetts Community College Council (MCCC) has expressed concern over what appears to be a drive to transition community colleges to “job training centers” (MCCC News, Vol. 13, Issue 9, Summer 2012, p. 3.), and provide funding primarily for career-focused programs. Critics worry that this may lead to a situation in which students of minority status who attend community colleges may have fewer choices in their education and maybe directed away from the four-year college path. MCCC president Joe LeBlanc cites Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, who pointed out in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “81.4% of first generation students aspire to earn a 4-year degree.” Le Blanc further argues that community colleges must heed the warning of the co-chair of the Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal, New York Public Library president Anthony Marx, who said,
“If the better funded 4-year sector caters to wealthier white students while community colleges lose funding to educate low-income and minority students, the 2-year sector will remain separate and unequal.”
That’s where this new information about online students can come in handy. If the new survey information is correct, the majority of online students are more interested in career development than the four-year degree path. Perhaps re-focusing community college online programs to center more squarely on career-development, at least temporarily, these schools can both respond to the current needs of career oriented students, who can enroll online, and also continue to fulfill their historic mission as lower-cost, widely accessible alternatives to traditional four-year colleges and universities. This will also allow community colleges to continue developing their relationships with their business partners, because their workers can enroll online in specific workforce training programs.
In summary, as we continue to learn more about the kinds of students who enroll in fully online programs and what they are interested in studying, it is important to think about how we can design online programming in response to this data. This information will be useful in multiple ways, but one way we can put it to use immediately is to try and bridge some of the divisions in community college programming.