Guiding Students Through the Online Learning Experience

Online college education has accelerated in recent years and is expected to continue to grow as colleges and universities increasingly compete to serve this unique student population.

The Online College Students Report 2023 is designed to help guide online higher education leaders on how best to serve the students who want to pursue higher ed through online programs.

Who Attends Online College?

Women dominate both the undergraduate and graduate online college student populations. Undergraduate online college students are most often single, white women between 19 and 23 years old who are not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. Approximately half are employed full time. Graduate online students are a little older between 30 and 35 years old and are also most often white women who are not Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin and are employed full time. Fifty-seven percent of undergraduates and graduate students have no children under 18 in the home.

What, Why and Where Students Study

More than 50 percent of survey respondents enroll in online college primarily to start a new career either more aligned with their interests (26%) or to earn more money (25%). While 20 percent of graduate students enroll to increase their salary within their current profession, only 13 percent of undergraduates do. Twenty percent of undergraduates enroll to get their first professional/salaried job; only 11 percent of graduate students reported this as a primary objective.

Eighty percent of undergraduate and 70 percent of graduate students are enrolled in degree study. Graduate online students are more likely to enroll in certificate study (31%) than undergraduates (20%). The largest group of students (22%) study business, followed by health, nursing, and medicine (19%), and computers and IT (17%). These comprise almost 60 percent of the online college student enrollment. Forty-six percent of students are studying a field directly related to their employment, and 58 percent prefer asynchronous courses. Forty-five percent are enrolled in public, not-for-profit institutions.

More than 90 percent of survey respondents had previously been enrolled in college study. 60 percent had been enrolled in post-secondary study within the past two years. Of those who had been previously enrolled, most completed their prior program: 61 percent of undergraduates and 82 percent of graduate students.

Websites, Social, and Streaming Media Usage

Nearly 90 percent of online college students use a smartphone to access streaming media. These students use free audio streaming subscriptions more often than they do video except for YouTube. Online students most often use YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify daily. When looking for information, online students use Instagram and Facebook most frequently. Forty-three percent of online college students follow schools of interest on social media.

Overall, online college students found it difficult to find the information they were looking for on college websites. Being able to attract students to school websites is important as 70 percent of online college students indicated their first step in school selection was a visit to the school’s website.

The most important decision-making factor of online school choice is the cost of tuition and fees. About 60 percent of students prefer to learn about program costs when they first visit a school website. However, only one out of four students found the fee and tuition information they were seeking on college websites. In terms of recruitment activities, the two most influential marketing activities in school selection were in-person events (38%) followed by online events such as online tours, webinars, and online social events, which were cited by 35% of survey respondents.