[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on February 1st of this year, was our #7 most popular story of the year. The countdown continues tomorrow with #6, so be sure to check back!]

Higher ed online students expect a lot from their programs; but with every student’s unique expectations and desires, how can institutions not only rise above the competition, but offer the best online learning options for their students?

Those are the questions a joint survey–conducted by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research of 1,500 individuals part of higher ed online learning programs nationwide–aimed to answer in its fourth annual survey.

Every year, these organizations conduct a survey of students at least 18 years old; have a minimum of a high school degree; and were recently enrolled, currently enrolled, or planning to enroll in the next 12 months in either a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree program or a fully online certificate or licensure program. (To access the 2012, 2013, and 2014 reports, click here.)

The report summarizes the trends in the online student experience, from recruitment to graduation, and aims to provide insights on how to attract and serve these students.

“The patterns and preferences of the sample of individual interviews are reflective of online students as a whole, and the data reflect a national template of the behavior and preferences of these students,” notes the report. “College and university leaders can use this information to attract and serve this growing population. Individual institutions should also consider regional data and their positioning in the local marketplace.”

10 must-have’s from 2016’s online learning students

According to the report, today’s online learning program:

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1.Must help with students’ careers: Roughly 75 percent of online students surveyed seek further education to change careers, get a job, earn a promotion or keep up to date with their skills. The third most appealing marketing message among the group sampled was “a high job placement rate.” Online learning must also be major- or program-driven, as 60 percent of respondents indicated that they selected their program of study first and then considered institutions. One-third responded that the critical factor in decision-making was “The program was the best match,” which was more important than price or reputation. “Colleges that want to excel in attracting prospective online students must prepare them for, and connect them to, the world of work,” highlights the report.

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2.Must offer choices for personalization: The report emphasizes throughout that online students are diverse in their preferences, so there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. “The preferences of online college students are often contradictory, so decision-makers need to consider and pursue a variety of strategies to reach the maximum amount of this population,” says the report. One example of contradictory attitudes can be seen in the survey’s question of: “How often would you be willing to log in at a specific time to join a required discussion or virtual lecture with your instructor and classmates?” 21 percent of students responded “never,” but 15 percent responded “more than five times per course.” When asked if they preferred paper or electronic textbooks, 43 percent preferred electronic, 33 percent preferred paper and 23 percent didn’t have a preference.

(Next page: Online learning must-have’s 3-6)

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3.Must be flexible with policies and processes: Students surveyed noted that these policies and processes should include “shorter academic terms (five to eight weeks); generous credit transfer policies; informative websites; and speedy response times on admission decisions, transfer credit reviews and financial aid packaging.” These online student-friendly practices are becoming minimum requirements for institutions that want to thrive in this arena, says the report. For example, the amount of transfer credit accepted has consistently been ranked one of the top 10 factors in selecting an institution these surveys, and one-quarter of students reported receiving that information prior to submitting their application.

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4.Must provide local sources of information: The survey revealed that half of online students surveyed live within 50 miles of their campus, and 65 percent live within 100 miles. Even though these students rarely, if ever, visit the campus, it is nearby. Thirty-four percent of respondents reported that the recommendation of friends, colleagues and relatives was an important factor in deciding if a college had a good reputation. Online students were asked, “After identifying institutions of interest, what were your primary methods of gathering detailed information?” 24 percent reported attending an open house, 31 percent had conversations with friends and family, and 21 percent had conversations with their employers or colleagues. Online students were also found to “pre-select” their preferred institution of study, as one-third contacted only one institution when deciding to pursue their online education. “It is critical that institutions have a strong local brand so that they are at the top of their students’ minds when they begin to search for a program of study,” stresses the report.

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5.Must have a great website: (Read: “Your .edu site for 2016 looks like this.”) 16 percent of respondents reported having no contact with personnel at the institution prior to applying; yet, almost 50 percent reported turning directly to the college website when they were asked, “What were your primary methods of gathering detailed information?” Similarly, 43 percent of students reported using the website to request more information about their program of interest. Almost 30 percent sent an email for more information, and 28 percent called the institution.

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6.Must be affordable: 45 percent of respondents to the 2015 survey reported that they selected the most inexpensive institution. In 2014, 30 percent reported selecting the most inexpensive institution. Among 23 potential marketing messages, the most appealing were “Affordable tuition” and “Free textbooks.”

(Next page: Must-have’s 7-10)

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7.Must include instructor communication: Only 10 percent of respondents thought online instruction was not as good as their in-class instruction; yet, when asked about their concerns with online instruction, 21 percent reported “Inconsistent/poor contact and communication with instructors,” and 17 percent reported “Inconsistent/poor quality of instruction. ” When respondents were asked if they would prefer online tutorials, independent study or instructor-led classes, only about one-third favored instructor-led online classes, which is the predominant format offered currently. One-third would like a faculty member as their advisor, and about half would find optional internships and on campus courses attractive.

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8.Must offer fully online…but also blended: When asked if they would attend on-campus classes if their program was not available online, about 30 percent of respondents said they probably or definitely would not. About one-quarter said they probably or definitely would not attend a hybrid or low-residency program. However, “although some students prefer never going to campus and never participating in synchronous online learning activities, a significant percentage is interested in on-campus activities, classes and internships,” notes the report. About half of the respondents indicated they would attend a hybrid or low-residency option if their program was not available fully online. 22 percent indicated “One or more optional on-campus courses” was very attractive.

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9.Must have transparent data: The data in this report indicate that substantial numbers of students are interested in knowing more about features that institutions could use to distinguish themselves, such as price, self-study options, faculty advisors or job placement rates. Additionally, respondents reported that they selected an institution based on a variety of information such as tuition, admission requirements and available programs, all of which should be available on a college’s website.

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10.Must market to all ages: The survey found that while online education has traditionally been marketed toward adult learners, more and more students under 25 years of age are choosing to study online for their undergraduate degrees.

For much more information on the survey, including methodology and in-depth findings and recommendations, read the full report, “Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences.

About the Author:

Meris Stansbury

Meris Stansbury is the Editorial Director for both eSchool News and eCampus News, and was formerly the Managing Editor of eCampus News. Before working at eSchool Media, Meris worked as an assistant editor for The World and I, an online curriculum publication. She graduated from Kenyon College in 2006 with a BA in English, and enjoys spending way too much time either reading or cooking.


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