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Online College Students 2016: A New Report from Learning House

Every year, it is my pleasure to announce the release of the Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences report, and this year is no different. For the fifth year in a row, Learning House, in conjunction with Aslanian Market Research, has surveyed 1,500 past, present and prospective fully online college students to understand what they want in an online program. We ask everything from why they want to go back to school to how they choose a program to their preferred method of studying, and more. This report has given us some important, and occasionally surprising information, and this year is no different. Below are just a few of the highlights.

Alternative Credentials Are Intriguing

I talk a lot about the rise of alternative credentials, including MOOCs, competency-based education (CBE), nanodegrees and more. It turns out, I’m not the only one who is intrigued by the possibilities inherent in these new kinds of credentials. With 80 percent of students already having some kind of college credit, students are looking for ways to finish their degrees faster and get credit for the experience they already bring.

The biggest challenge alternative credentials face is simply students knowing what they are and the promise they hold. While one-third of students are familiar with CBE, less than 20 percent are familiar with other types of alternative credentials. Many students, however, say that they want to learn more, and would be drawn to these paths.

Schools, then, need to both explore offering alternative credentials and do a concerted effort to educate students about how these credentials work and the benefits they can bring. The audience is receptive, but the knowledge needs to be disseminated. The rewards, I believe, will be worth it in increased enrollments, higher retention rates and a more satisfied student body.

Even Small Scholarships Matter

Cost is the No. 1 consideration for students when choosing an online program, so it makes sense that scholarships are viewed favorably. What was interesting to me, though, was how small of a scholarship was considered a motivator to choosing a program. Forty percent of students said that a $500 scholarship annually would sway their decision to enroll in an online program.

The marketer in me thinks scholarships are a great way to get attention, but I also think this proves the point that reducing tuition gives colleges a strong opportunity to set themselves apart from the marketplace. Even a small reduction reaps big rewards in terms of student perception of value and cost savings, so I encourage schools to look at their tuition and see if they can reduce it. The benefits will be worth it!

Like the Rest of the World, Online Programs Move Fast

We live in a world of instant gratification. When my kids want to watch their favorite television show, there is no waiting until Thursday night at 8 p.m. for it to come on. Instead, they go to the DVR or a streaming service and can watch any episode at any time.

This mentality has permeated even college admissions. Forty-four percent of students want to hear back about how many credits they can transfer before even applying, and one-third want to know how much financial aid they will receive before applying. Sixty-eight percent of students are choosing the schools they will apply to within four weeks, and half of students choose the school that replies to them first after an inquiry.

While students are looking for speed, however, schools have not met this demand. This is a place where colleges have a chance to stand out; developing efficient enrollment processes can significantly impact student opinion. A robust contact strategy after inquiry, unofficial credit transfer evaluations, and staff dedicated to financial aid questions all can help schools provide the information students want at the speed they expect it.

Online Doesn’t Mean Out of Sight

In my years in the online education world, it’s long been accepted that online students don’t go to campus. One of the major marketing messages for a long time, in fact, was that with online education, students could study anywhere they wanted. It turns out, students want to study close to home. Three-quarters of online students choose a campus within 100 miles of home. This isn’t that surprising to me – we’ve seen data like that since 2012. What did surprise me this year was that approximately 75 percent of online students visited their campus at least once during the academic year – a significant increase from 2014, when only 38 percent visited their campus at least once during the year.

Ensuring that online students feel like a welcome part of the community, then, will become increasingly important. While online students are looking for the ease and flexibility of studying online, they still seem to desire a relationship with the on-ground portion of the school, and finding ways to make them feel included will go a long way toward improving retention rates.

Of course, these are just a few of the insights gleaned from the 2016 Online College Students report. Download the full report here, or view our infographic here. Join us on August 4 at 1 p.m. EDT for a live webinar with the authors to learn more about the insights shared in the report.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: tzipper@learninghouse.com