5 key takeaways on today's online student

After giving the concept of online college courses at least the past 20 years (or longer) to develop, we can probably safely move it out of the revolutionary heading and into an ingrained, everyday role within higher education. The data: In 2012, 26% of all college students took at least one online course and 13% studied entirely online. About 2 million of those students were undergraduates and 600,000 were in graduate programs.

According to a new research report, "Online College Students 2014: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences," the demand for online courses will eventually settle in with one third of college students studying entirely online, a third entirely on campus, and another third using both delivery methods. The report was written by The Learning House Inc. — which helps colleges develop online degree programs — and Aslanian Market Research, a unit of Education Dynamics that conducts studies and seminars for colleges seeking to expand online enrollment.

Here are five key takeaways from the Online College Students 2014 report:

1. Convenience is no longer the top selling point

The convenience of online studying is a less compelling selling point for students than it used to be. As competition heats up among online course providers, they’ll need to do a better job articulating what sets them apart and providing prospective students with data to back it up. Attractive selling points to students include high job placement rates, low prices and the ability to transfer course credits to other programs.

Selection Factors (Click to expand)

2. It's all about the jobs

Most students who pursue online degrees and certificates do it for employment, either to get full-time jobs, new jobs, better jobs, or training for their current jobs. Within a year of graduation, about 40% of the online students report improvement in their employment status, typically with a raise or promotion. When asked about potential marketing messages for online courses, the most appealing pitch was one that promised high job placement rates.

In a related point, the percentage of unemployed online students is growing, to 30% in 2014, up from 16% in 2012 and 24% in 2013. The percentage of online students who work fulltime dropped to 46% in 2014, from 60% in 2012 and 55% in 2013. 

Primary Motivations (Click to expand)

3. Financial aid is key, but cost is not

Cost is important, but not a deciding factor for students selecting online programs. Among students who had already enrolled in an online program, 66% of undergraduates and 79% of graduate students said they didn’t select the least expensive program. Financial aid is critical for about half of all online students, but only 20% say they would not attend an institution if their financial aid needs were not been met. Most online students — about 60% of undergraduates and 70% of graduate students — are completely satisfied with their investment of time and money in an online degree.

Funding Sources (Click to expand)

4. Distance between students and institutions is growing

Online students are enrolling with institutions that are farther from their homes. The trend is more pronounced for graduate students than for undergrads: In 2014, 48% of online graduate students enrolled with institutions that are more than 100 miles from their homes; compared to 29% in 2013 and 35% in 2012. For undergraduate students, the 100-mile-plus figures were 31% in 2014, 27% in 2013, and 25% in 2012.

Proximity to Institution (Click to expand)

5. Business is booming

Business continues to be the most common field of study for online students. More than one-quarter—28% for both graduate and undergrad students-- enroll in business programs. The second-most popular study area is health-related professions, with 17% of the undergrads and 11% of the graduate students, followed by computers and IT at 14% of the undergrads and 9% of the graduate students.

As the online course market matures even further, and the competition for online students becomes more intense, look for courses and degree programs to become more attuned to their target audiences. And as marketers pick up more information on the nuances of the online markets, the pitches for online programs should become more focused.

Preferred Fields of Study (Click to expand)

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Filed Under: Higher Ed Technology Online Learning