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Students seeking online degrees might soon resemble traditional on-campus students, according to a new survey sponsored by two companies involved in online education consulting.

The survey, in its second year, continues to show the typical student seeking a degree or certification online is a married middle-aged white woman, but the new results suggest the overall population of online learners is beginning to include more students who are of traditional college age, but not going to a college campus. The survey is only of students who have taken, are taking or plan to take courses from an online program.

“It’s obvious that more and more people from traditional college-age populations are electing to do their college online -- they are just skipping the campus,” said David Clinefelter, a co-author of the study and the chief academic officer at the Learning House, Inc., which advises colleges on online education ventures.

Clinefelter and co-author Carol Aslanian, a senior vice president of market research at Education Dynamics, said they would like to see 2014’s survey before they can verify that the moves in this year’s research are a trend rather than an anomaly since their 2012 survey.

About a third of America’s 21 million college students are enrolled in at least one online class, including about three million students who are thought to be enrolled in fully online programs. The survey tries to get a sense of who those three million students are and what they are up to.

The survey was paid for by the two companies. Resolution Research of Denver conducted the survey of 1,500 respondents who were recently enrolled, are currently enrolled, or planned to enroll in a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree, certificate, or licensure program.  The respondents were drawn from a market research panel of consumers invited by e-mail to participate in an online survey about online education. The survey reports it has a 3 percent margin of error.

About a third of the students surveyed were between 18 and 24 years old, up from a quarter of the students last year. The sample was also “more male and more Caucasian.”

Aslanian said early online programs were not geared to younger students.

“I don’t think the for-profits that really opened the doors to online education 10 years ago were thinking of high schools,” she said, referring to their target audience.

Now, not-for-profit colleges are teaching a significant majority of online students.

“About two-thirds of online students attend not-for-profit institutions, and we predict that percentage will increase as more not-for-profit institutions begin to offer online programs,” the study said.

The survey also found that nearly a third of students who took online classes would not have taken the same classes on a campus: 28 percent said they definitely would not have gone on campus to take the courses, while only 17 percent said they definitely would have gone to a campus to take the courses. The rest of the students fell somewhere in between.

The authors used this finding to issue a warning.

“College and university leaders often worry that if they offer online programs, enrollments in their classroom programs will decline,” the report said. “This may be true but if they offer the program online, they will retain those students and gain additional ones. By only offering classroom or hybrid programs, they miss a portion of potential students who will not consider classroom or hybrid programs and won’t attend if the program is unavailable online.”

And, while the promise of higher ed is to eliminate the barriers of distance and time, about 70 percent of students turn to online programs based at colleges within 100 miles of their home. The finding that suggests well-regarded institutions with a good online presence can ward off homogenous players.

Aslanian said the victory of regionalism could run into problems if other distance education providers can significantly undercut local prices.

 “I think the only thing that stands in the way is pricing,” she said. “I think students would go afar for pricing.”

Some – but not most – students said they received tangible results from their online education endeavors. The survey showed 44 percent of respondents who had already completed their online program had received either a new job or a promotion. Students also largely reported a positive experience with online education.

“I was pleasantly surprised by a high percentage of students who said it was definitely worth my time and money,” Clinefelter said.

Respondents had a favorable view of massive open online courses, but few had actually taken a MOOC.

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