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Online College Students 2018: Beyond the Key Findings

Since its publication back in June, much has been written and discussed about our seventh annual Online College Students report. What else is there to say or cover? Surprisingly, I think there is still much we could examine further.

What I want to do is show an answer to a question we get a lot at Learning House when we talk to potential partner schools: Are you going to transform all of our on-campus students into online students? Our answer, which is shown in these data, is always “no” because the online college student is a different breed of student.

Online Programs Bring Students You Would Lose Out on

One of the key findings from the report talks about online students bypassing the traditional classroom. The question is not a new one in our survey, but one that I started to look at differently and saw a new story within. Twenty-four percent of online college students probably would not have or definitely would not have attended an on-campus program if their online program were not available. At Learning House, we always point to this fact to show that by adding online programs, a school can start to address this “new” market of students that would never come to their campus.

However, this year, I started to look at the other end of the scale and saw a group of 57 percent of students that say they probably would or would attend a campus-based program if their online program were not available. This is the group that I feel are choosing to bypass the classroom because online is an option for them. We know from our report, and from managing hundreds of online programs, that the vast majority of online degree programs are being offered simultaneously in both learning formats (on campus and online) and that as the online college market has grown in the past few years, there are not many areas where a student would not be able to find a classroom-based program similar to their online one. These students are purposely choosing to study and earn their degree online, and schools would miss out on these students otherwise.

This Is Not Their First Rodeo

Traditional students are typically encouraged to apply to seven or more institutions when they are going from high school to college. As we know, online college students are applying to between two and three. Why the contrast? Online students likely are not working with high school counselors to push them to apply to a large and varied group of schools. Sixty percent of these online students have completed online courses before, and the majority of undergraduates have past credits they want to transfer. This tells us this is not their first interaction with higher education. These students are picking specific programs and are not behaving like an “undeclared” college freshmen that is still deciding on where to go in life.

Meeting Speed With Speed

Because they have a clearer picture of their educational goals, these students are also making their college decisions more quickly than traditional students and are looking for colleges to match their fast pace. With 62 percent completing their search and submitting their application within four weeks, this can easily be seen as a much more compressed time frame than what is seen with traditional higher education, where students can start researching in their sophomore and junior year of high school. And as quickly as these online college students are submitting their application, they are looking for the college or university to respond to them in kind: 20 percent are looking to hear about their estimated financial aid award before submitting their application, and an additional 17 percent expect to hear within a week of their application submission.

These data, in conjunction with one another, paint a picture of an experienced higher education learner that is seeking out a different experience than what they would gain on-campus. So, when we are asked about reducing campus-based students or fears of empty campus classrooms, we can point to data that show that a different student is being brought to the institution though the addition of online programs.

For more great insight into the Online College Student 2018 report, watch our webinar.

About Andrew J. Magda

Andrew leads in the development of custom and large-scale market research studies and assists partner institutions with their research needs. Prior to Learning House, he was a senior analyst at Eduventures and a project manager at the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.