Two IPEDS-based research studies show that online learning preferences and trends are changing. But what are these new trends and how does this affect colleges and universities?

online-learning-demandsOnline learning enrollment is slowing down. At the same time, student preferences and demands for online courses and degrees are changing. And this is all due to increasing online learning options provided by colleges and universities.

Those are the big takeaways from two distinctive reports released by higher education industry powerhouses, utilizing the vast amount of data available from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) as a foundation for further analysis.

According to “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States,” a report released the Babson Survey Research Group, the Online Learning Consortium, Pearson and Tyton Partners—that surveyed more than 2,800 colleges and universities and IPEDS data for 4,891 responses—though online education enrollment growth continues, it’s at the “slowest rate ever.”

“The study’s findings point to a competitive marketplace, in which traditional institutions are gaining ground on the for-profits in online and distance education,” said study co-author Jeff Seaman, co-director of Babson.  “While the rapid pace of online learning growth has moderated, it still accounts for nearly three-quarters of all U.S. higher education’s enrollment increases last year.

Seaman’s emphasis on a competitive marketplace leading to a moderation of enrollment growth points to another report’s conclusive finding that as online learning matures, so are student demands and preferences.

The report, “Online College Students 2014: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences,” a joint project of The Learning House, Inc., and Aslanian Market Research, surveyed 1,500 students who were recently enrolled, are currently enrolled, or planned to enroll in online learning.

The report also used IPEDS data as a starting point for research, and quickly found that “as competition intensifies, the convenience of online study is less compelling to students.”

The authors noted that outcomes such as placement rates and features such as price and credit transfer are gaining importance as points of difference between programs.

(Next page: 11 online learning demands and preferences of today’s students)

According to Learning House’s report, key findings of the 2014 study include:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Reputation and price continue to be key selection criteria.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
Online College Students 2014 – Infographic

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?)

According to the Babson Survey report, findings revealed that:

  • The year-to-year 3.7 percent increase in the number of distance education students is the lowest recorded over the 13 years of this report series.
  • Public and private nonprofit institutions recorded distance enrollment growth, but these were offset by a decrease among for-profit institutions.
  • The percent of academic leaders rating the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face remained unchanged at 74 percent.
  • The proportion of chief academic leaders reporting online learning is critical to their long-term strategy reached a new high of 71 percent.
  • Only 28 percent of academic leaders say that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.”
  • The adoption of MOOCs is reaching a plateau—only 8 percent of higher education institutions currently offer one, another 5.6 percent report MOOCs are in the planning stages.
  • The proportion of academic leaders who believe that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses dropped to 16 percent, down from 28 percent in 2012.
  • Decreasing numbers of leaders see MOOCs as a way for institutions to learn about online pedagogy—28 percent this year, down from 50 percent and 44 percent for the last two years.
  • Increasing numbers of chief academic officers think that retaining students is a greater problem for online courses than for face-to-face courses—45 percent in 2014 versus 40 percent in 2013, and 27 percent in 2004.

View the report’s comprehensive infographic here.

“With a convincing majority of responding academic leaders saying that online learning is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy, and nearly three-quarters claiming student outcomes from online learning are the same or better than outcomes from face-to-face instruction, I think we can safely say that online learning has become an established and increasingly important component of the American higher education landscape,” said Joel Hartman, vice provost and CIO of the University of Central Florida and OLC Board President.

However, though online learning may be an “established component” of higher education, the Babson survey also emphasizes Learning House’s point that colleges and universities must differentiate their offerings for increasingly discerning online students.

“Online learning has now shifted to be a mainstream form of delivery for the majority of higher education institutions,” said Todd Hitchcock, SVP, Pearson Online Learning Services. “We are now seeing colleges and universities take a much more strategic approach to creating program offerings that are scalable, sustainable and personalized to improve academic and employment outcomes for learners.”

For further information, including report methodologies, deeper data, and advice and best practices for interested colleges and universities, visit the reports:

“Grade Level” by Babson

“Online College Students 2014” by The Learning House


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