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Many surveys of student attitudes about online learning during the pandemic focus on the majority of learners who found themselves studying online against their will. The closing of their campuses thrust them into virtual courses that neither they (nor, in many cases, their instructors) were prepared for. As a result, many such surveys found mixed reviews of online learning.
Many thousands of students actively choose virtual programs, however, because their work or family lives demand it, and a new survey finds that such students are more satisfied with their online programs than they were before the pandemic. The report, published by Wiley University Services, is based on a national survey of 2,500 adults who are enrolled in, planning to enroll in or recently graduated from fully online degree or certificate programs. A strong majority (94 percent) of respondents rated their online college experiences as “positive” or “very positive,” compared with 86 percent before the pandemic.
Most of these learners choosing to study fully online are driven to study by career goals. These students are cost conscious but hesitate to use employer-sponsored tuition benefits. They strongly prefer asynchronous learning but are willing to join occasional synchronous or on-campus sessions. The population seeking online colleges more than 100 miles away is shrinking. And nearly half of online graduates are willing to return to the same institution for another degree.
“You can’t build something that’s going to be right for everybody,” said David Capranos, director of marketing strategy and research at Wiley, who led the survey. “You have to think about who you are as a university, what makes the most sense for the population you’re trying to address, and try to craft a program that’s going to maximize those things.” What follows are some highlights from the report, along with commentary from national online leaders.
Online Students Are Driven by Career Goals
For many students, the decision to study online happens before selecting a program or university. Most of the survey respondents (77 percent) decided to study online before any other factor. Once that decision was made, respondents prioritized their field of study (82 percent), cost (74 percent), time to degree completion (68 percent) and the college’s reputation (62 percent). Online students also care about program length, as nearly 70 percent are seeking fast degree-completion times with options that minimize breaks between courses.
Many online students have employment in mind—either the positions they currently hold or the ones to which they aspire. Respondents’ top reasons for pursuing an online program included: improved job prospects (40 percent); career advancement (38 percent), career start (35 percent), career change based on interest (32 percent); or career change based on salary potential (31 percent). Among online learners who earned degrees, nearly 90 percent attributed an outcome to their pursuit of the degree such as a salary increase (36 percent) or a new job (26 percent).
“When it comes to the Great Resignation … The adults who are resigning are going to need new jobs, and they’re going to be figuring out how to get those skills sets,” Gregory Fowler, president of the University of Maryland Global Campus, said. “Administrators need to be much more transparent about the skills, the abilities, the knowledge that they have associated with various experiences … and be more accountable to students on whether or not they’re getting those skills.”
Many Are Cost Conscious, but Some Opt Out of Employee Tuition Benefits
Cost has been a top-ranking factor in online students’ decisions in the past decade about which programs to attend, and that trend continued this year when nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of respondents cited program tuition and fees as “very important” or “extremely important.” One-third (33 percent) said that cost would be their deciding factor in which institution to attend—an increase from 28 percent in 2018. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) believe their online programs are worth the cost, compared with 8 percent who disagree.
Despite affordability concerns, nearly half of respondents with access to employer-sponsored tuition assistance programs either do not use or do not plan to use these benefits. They reported that either their employer’s tuition benefits were inadequate (28 percent), that they were concerned about a potential need to repay the benefit if they left the job (28 percent) or that they cannot afford to prepay tuition (23 percent).
“We also see that the tax threshold—the $5,250 a year that many employers are willing to pay up to—may not be enough for some out-of-state or private college programs, and that limits employees from taking advantage of the benefit,” said Thomas Cavanagh, vice provost for digital learning at the University of Central Florida. The report’s authors recommend that employers reduce barriers that prevent employees from using tuition benefits.
An annual scholarship of $500 is meaningful to many students. Nearly one-third of respondents indicated that such an award would be enough to select one program over another.
“One of the dangers, as we look at all this [online] technology advancing, is that we could actually further distance the very people who we are trying to help with social mobility,” Fowler said. He offered the example of those who do not have immediate access to or cannot afford Wi-Fi at home. Inequity is “only going to increase if we don’t think about pairing equity and accessibility with these technologies.”
Asynchronous Learning Dominates, but Synchronous Learning Is Trending
Flexibility is key for online learners. Most (69 percent) prefer asynchronous programs, and most (79 percent) do not want campus visits to be required components of their academic pursuits.
“There’s an audience that would never consider coming to campus,” Capranos said. “We ask them four or five different ways [in the survey], ‘what if your online program wasn’t available?’ They say, ‘Nope. Nope. Nope. I need to go online.’”
Still, many online students are willing to engage in synchronous and hybrid learning opportunities. More than three-quarters (79 percent) of respondents are willing to log in at a specific time each week, compared with fewer than one-quarter (21 percent) who “never” want to log in at a set time. Most online students prefer synchronous sessions on weekdays during the evening, though “evening” can depend on time zone. Faculty members might offer several options at different times of day or on different days of the week to meet students’ needs, Capranos recommended.
Though online students prefer to have no in-person requirements, more than half (55 percent) are willing to visit campus once each term for an in-person session, and more than one-third (34 percent) say visiting is important. Many want to attend their graduation ceremonies (38 percent) or meet their professors in person (37 percent).
“We advise a lot of programs where students have to come to campus for two to three days,” Capranos said. “Anecdotally, we asked people, ‘what did you like the most about your degree?’ It was those three days on campus.”
Many Students Want Their Online Colleges to Be Closer to Home Than in the Past
The percentage of students who are willing to attend an online college more than 100 miles away shrank in the past decade, from 30 percent to 24 percent of respondents. Approximately half (48 percent) want their online universities to be less than 50 miles from where they live. One-quarter (24 percent) were unconcerned with physical proximity to campus.
“Students are mixing their modalities,” Cavanagh said. “If students want to have agency to choose a different modality for different courses or to participate in events on campus on occasion, they’re going to want to be within driving distance.”
Nearly Half of Online Graduates Want to Return for Another Degree.
Online program graduates want to be engaged alumni, and nearly half (48 percent) say they are “likely” or “very likely” to return to the institution for another program. These boomerang students are more likely to be under 30 years old and prefer programs with accelerated completion times. Their strong numbers offer a satisfaction metric and an opportunity. For example, an online learner may be interested in data early in their career but then identify a need for leadership skills in the middle of their career.
“Warm these folks up to how easy it is to come back,” Capranos said. “Communicating with them is not just about your alumni donation strategy. Think about them as a returning customer. That’s the next big challenge for a lot of administrators.”