What Online Learners Want

A new report suggests that academic rigor is not at the top of the list.

Earlier this year, the marketing firm Education Dynamics released its 12th annual Online College Students Report, which professes to identify “the demands and preferences of online college students today.” As the 2023 report makes clear, the landscape of online collegiate study is changing rapidly.

Since the Covid outbreak in March of 2020, “participation in online college education has skyrocketed.” By the fall of 2021, a total of 5,741,380 students had enrolled online at an American higher-ed institution, a whopping 30 percent of all enrolled students nationwide. Universities offering online programs need to be aware of how to cater to this growing online population while maintaining their status as truly academic institutions.

Only 19 percent of respondents “enrolled in more expensive schools because the program better met their needs.”Among Education Dynamics’ findings is that the median age of online college students is growing steadily younger, a fact that could well be attributed to educational-delivery changes that normalized online learning during Covid. The median age of online undergraduates is now 26, while the median age of online graduate students is 28. (Those numbers were 29 and 31 a mere two years ago.) These students are primarily studying business (22 percent); health, nursing, and medicine (19 percent); and computers, IT, or technology (17 percent).

Education Dynamics further states that “over 50 percent of respondents enroll primarily to start a new career.” These students are looking for ways to advance in the working world; however, when asked to list the top-five most important factors in their enrollment decisions, about half of respondents mentioned the cost of tuition and fees. Only around one-third, by contrast, mentioned “programs that match my career goals” when describing their thought processes. 59 percent of online students responded that they preferred to learn about the cost of an institution on their first visit to a school’s web site. Crucially, only 19 percent of respondents “enrolled in more expensive schools because the program better met their needs.”

As for online learners’ work-study balances, 59 percent of online college students are employed full-time, while 21 percent are employed part-time. Only 19 percent of online students are not employed at all. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that 58 percent of online students reported a preference for asynchronous programs (in which course sessions are viewed at the student’s convenience). 21 percent of students stated that they prefer a combination of synchronous and asynchronous schedules, with some classes occurring at a set time, with classmates, and others available whenever the user logs in.

In sum, most online college students are bargain-seekers who want the necessary credentials for career advancement and have little use for the traditional, everyone-learning-together model of education. The trick for colleges will be meeting this need without sacrificing academic integrity or reducing costs to the point of bankruptcy.

Kristin MacArthur is a senior studying English, creative writing, and Spanish at Liberty University.