According to Learning House’s report, key findings of the 2014 study include:
- Online students are enrolling at institutions further away from their residence. In 2012, 80 percent reported attending an institution within 100 miles of where they lived. This declined to 69 percent in 2013 and 54 percent in 2014.
- Although cost and financial aid are important to online students, these are not deciding factors in their selection of an online program—66 percent of undergraduate online students and 79 percent of graduate online students who had already enrolled report that they did not select the least expensive program available. Though financial aid was critical for about half of those surveyed, only 20 percent say they would not attend an institution if their financial aid needs had not been met.
- Online students are looking to improve their employment situation and are satisfied with their investment in an online degree. Within a year of graduation, about 40 percent report improvement in their employment status, typically a raise or promotion. About 60 percent of undergraduates and 70 percent of graduate students report being completely satisfied with their investment of time and money.
- High job placement rate is the most appealing marketing message. Given a choice of 18 different marketing messages, the overwhelming favorite was “90 percent job placement.” Three messages were runners-ups: “Earn your degree in one year,” “study at your own pace,” and “free textbooks.”
- Although many universities prefer to price by credit hour, most students prefer to think of the total degree cost. In general, students appear to be confused about the price they pay. Most students prefer to think about cost in terms of the entire degree with per-course pricing their second choice at 33 percent. Per credit is the least favored way to think about price.
- About 80 percent of online undergraduates have earned credit elsewhere and transfer credit is important to them. These students report that it is very important that they can easily find information about transfer credits, have their questions answered quickly, and receive prompt decisions about transfer credit from institutions of interest.
- Business continues to be the most common field of study. Business and related fields continue to enroll the most online students with more than 25 percent of the total.
- Reputation and price continue to be key selection criteria.
- Some students have a clear preference for online study. Almost 90 percent of online students surveyed report that online study was equal to or better than classroom study.
- A higher percentage of online students are unemployed. The number of individuals working full time declined from 60 percent in 2012 to 55 percent in 2013 and 46 percent in 2014.
- A higher percentage of online students rely only on financial aid to pay for school. Since 2012, there has been an increasing trend of students paying for school with “student loans and other financial aid only,” selected by 31 percent of respondents in 2012, 37 percent in 2013 and 40 percent in 2014.
The takeaway for colleges and universities interested in attracting online students is the “need to articulate clearly what makes their online programs distinct and track student outcomes to provide quantifiable data to prospective students,” said David L. Clinefelter, chief academic officer of The Learning House, and co-author of the report.
(Next page: What do chief academic leaders think about online learning?)