If the world weren’t in the grip of a pandemic, the choice to study online, in person or something in between would be roughly the same among men and women, according to recent survey results.
Factoring in COVID-19, however, paints a different picture -- one where women are much less likely than men to choose to study in person, and much more likely to pick a fully online education option.
This gender divide is one of the most striking findings to emerge from a new Strada Education Network study published this week. Since March, Strada has been researching the impact of the pandemic on work and education in the U.S. through weekly or biweekly national surveys.
The latest data release focuses on the value of online learning, with questions indicating how the public perceives the effectiveness of online education, whether respondents would recommend online programs to their friends and how highly they think online credentials will be valued by future employers.
The Public Viewpoint: COVID-19 Work and Education survey found that Americans’ perceptions of the quality and value of in-person, online or hybrid education vary widely. The majority of respondents, 35 percent, felt that online education offered the best value for money. But online was viewed as the least effective approach for learning, and the least likely to prepare students for success in their job and career. One in 10 survey respondents said they were likely to enroll in an online education or training program in the next six months.
Hybrid education, which mixes elements of online and in-person education, was a consistently popular option throughout the survey, said Dave Clayton, senior vice president of consumer insights at the Strada Education Network. He doesn’t believe respondents were picking hybrid because they couldn’t make a decision between online or in person. Rather, he thinks respondents chose this option as they see it as a best-of-both-worlds scenario.
Recent graduates of online programs rated the value of their education higher than graduates of in-person programs. But most Americans (59 percent) believe that in-person education and training is more highly valued by employers than online training -- an interesting result, given that employers wouldn’t necessarily know that a credential was completed online unless disclosed by the job candidate. And in recent years an increasing number of major employers have supported workers in obtaining part-time online degrees with subsidized tuition programs.
About the Strada Polling Data
Inside Higher Ed and Strada Education Network partner on Public Viewpoint. Strada provides funding to Inside Higher Ed to support its coverage of the polling data and related workforce issues. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.
Preference for online education varied among different demographic groups. People aged 25 to 49 expressed greater enthusiasm for online-only options than people aged 18 to 24, or 50 or older. Black Americans also looked more favorably on online education than Asian, white or Latino respondents, and they had the most confidence in its quality.
“I can easily see how some Black people would prefer the option of learning from the comfort of their homes, as opposed to sitting physically in classrooms where they are the only or among just a few students who are Black,” said Shaun Harper, a professor and executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center.
“Many Black students frequently experience microaggressions, stereotyping and other acts of racial harm in traditional classrooms,” said Harper. “It very well could be that some Black Americans view virtual classrooms as spaces where they might encounter less anti-Blackness.”
The preference for online education over in person or hybrid may look different among Black Americans who are considering studying at historically Black colleges and universities, because these institutions "have amassed reputations for being culturally affirming and less racist educational environments for Black students," said Harper.
However, he said Black Americans considering online-only instruction should be wary of predatory for-profit institutions. "Too many of those institutions prey on low-income Black Americans, particularly Black women who would be returning adult learners. While fully online options might be a convenient and delightful alternative to racist traditional classroom spaces, they could end up costing Black students a lot more money than degrees from those places are ultimately worth.”
A Revealing Gender Divide
If COVID-19 were not a threat, roughly three in 10 Americans reported that it would be their preference to study online rather than in person or hybrid. Andrew Hanson, director of research at Strada, said this finding indicates an interest in online learning among the public that will endure beyond the pandemic. Before COVID-19, post-high school education was becoming more virtual, said Hanson -- a trend he believes will continue.
While in-person learning was still the preferred modality for respondents who were asked how they would choose to study if COVID-19 was not a concern, both men and women indicated a strong interest in hybrid learning. Among women, 41 percent said they would choose in person, 30 percent hybrid and 29 percent fully online. Among men, 42 percent said they would prefer in person, 31 percent hybrid and 27 percent fully online.
COVID-19 influenced the responses of both men and women when asked what modality they would choose if they enrolled in an education program in the next six months. Men’s choices changed slightly, with 33 percent reporting they would choose fully online, 36 percent hybrid and 31 percent in person. But women said they were much more likely to pursue a fully online option, with 48 percent choosing online, 30 percent hybrid and 22 percent in person.
Women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and this may be why they feel they cannot pursue in-person education, even if previously this would have been their preference, said C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Women are more likely to have lost work because of the pandemic and are more likely to be caring for children or family members at home, making balancing work, education and home life difficult, said Mason.
Currently more women than men are enrolled in higher education programs, but Mason worries that we may see an increase in women, particularly single mothers, dropping out or delaying their education because of insufficient funds and a lack of childcare support.
Both IWPR and the American Association of University Women are pushing for policy makers to introduce more funding for women pursuing higher education during the pandemic. Both organizations are concerned it is exacerbating existing inequalities for women. The IWPR is pushing for student parents to be prioritized in COVID-19 relief funding, among other policy initiatives. Reducing the burden of student loan debt is among the AAUW’s priorities.
Earlier this year, the AAUW published a report that found that women hold nearly two-thirds of the nation’s $1.54 trillion in student loan debt, with Black women holding the most debt when they finish their undergraduate degrees.
“There is an added burden and expectation on women to take care of their families and rearrange their lives because of the pandemic,” said Laura Segal, senior vice president of communications and external relations at the AAUW. “When you add to that that students are graduating to record unemployment and a pay gap, it’s pretty concerning.”