Skip to content

Public Confidence in Online College Programs Continues to Improve: Survey

The American public now expresses substantially more confidence in online college degrees than it did in 2017, according to a new poll released in November 2023.

More than four in five adults—84 percent—reported they now believe employers are more accepting of online degrees than during the pre-2020 era. Compared with six years ago, almost three-quarters of the sample said online education provides a “more reputable” means of obtaining a degree. Plus the survey reveals that 64 percent of respondents now believe that an online degree is equally as valuable as its on-campus equivalent, if not more valuable.

The poll was commissioned by the online division of Champlain College, a private liberal arts school with 3,500 students not far from the University of Vermont in the New England college town of Burlington. Conducted by consulting firm Researchscape International, the online survey polled a representative sample of 2,083 American adults aged 18 to 55 nationwide during July 2023. Champlain officials compared this poll with a smaller representative survey of 1,004 adults the school had conducted in late 2017 that also asked for opinions about online education.

Seven Key Poll Takeaways

Champlain’s poll found the following key “takeaways” shared by adult respondents:

  • Ninety percent considered online education “effective in equipping students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in their careers,” with 34 percent considering it “very effective”
  • If enrolling in undergraduate or graduate instruction, 80 percent would consider an online program
  • In a 20 percent increase over 2017’s result, 77 percent of adults now think online higher education is equal to or better at meeting the needs of students ages 23 and above, compared with on-campus higher education
  • The 64 percent who now believe that an online degree’s value for the tuition dollar is equivalent to or greater than the value of an on-campus degree reflects a 20 percent increase over those who reported this opinion in 2017
  • Fifty-two percent consider an online college degree to be equal in value to an on-campus program’s degree
  • Forty-three percent reported a better opinion of online education since the pandemic
  • When comparing higher education programs, 53 percent believe that online programs are equivalent to or better than campus programs in meeting the needs of students ages 17 through 22—a 33 percent increase over 2017’s result

Younger Students Now Prefer Online Education

What’s surprising some observers about Champlain’s new poll is that this time, almost half of the youngest Gen Z respondents said they now held a significantly better opinion of online learning than they had six years ago. That group’s 47 percent approval rating contrasts with 42 percent of Millennials and only 38 percent of Gen X.

Across the nation since the 1990s, the youngest traditional-age college students had steadfastly resisted online learning more than other demographic groups, but that’s now changing. Dr. Chris Montagnino, Champlain’s vice president of the online division, told Inside Higher Ed that although her program gears its efforts to working adults and its typical student is about 36 years old, “we’re seeing the continual increase of interest and support for those under 23. No one is marketing to them, but we’re seeing younger and younger students.” She also pointed out that colleges with huge online enrollments like Southern New Hampshire University—now America’s largest university with 224,000 students—also report observing the same trend.

“High-quality online education provides a level of accessibility, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness that can be life-changing for students,” she said in a statement. “We’ve often talked about adult learners benefiting the most from online education options, and we’re excited to see that both our survey data and our enrollment trends reflect a growing population of younger adults pursuing online degrees and understanding their value.”

Dr. Montagnino also told IHE that the growing online enrollments among younger, traditional-age students might be due to the introduction of universal online learning during the pandemic while they were still attending high school. She additionally believes that some families find online degrees preferable because they’re usually more affordable than on-campus programs and that the student debt crisis has prompted families to re-evaluate the value of in-person instruction.

Dr. Montagnino might be the most recent expert to point out the improving opinions of online education among traditional-age college students, but she wasn’t the first.

This trend was first observed as early as 2021 in a Bay View Analytics study. That survey showed an unexpected jump from about a third of college students enrolled in at least one online course in 2019 to about 50 percent at the time of its fieldwork two years later. In that report, 73 percent of currently enrolled undergraduates “somewhat” or “strongly” (46 percent) said they’d like to take fully online courses in the future.

Then in December 2022, the vice dean emeritus of online learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, Robert Ubell, drew more attention to this trend. In his astute EdSurge article titled “Why College Students Turned From Being Down on Remote Learning to Mostly in Favor of It,” Dean Ubell argues that remote classrooms during the pandemic were asked to “fulfill urgent needs for student personal engagement—a capability they were never meant to deliver.” He continues:

Once normal life returned and students could rely on other ways of getting together with friends and classmates, the digital classroom could relinquish its overwhelming social burden. Students can now take classes online without expecting them to be a place not only for learning, but also for socializing.

More recently, this trend favoring online instruction among traditional-age college students was also observed in another important survey. This was the recent Time for Class poll from the Boston-based consulting firm Tyton Partners. Tyton released its report in the summer of 2023, about five months earlier than Champlain’s survey.

As we pointed out in our July 2023 feature article on Tyton’s survey results entitled “Analysis: Online Student & Faculty Preferences at Odds, Says New Poll,” undergraduates currently in college overwhelmingly prefer online learning. We wrote:

The Tyton poll found that in contrast to faculty, students prefer learning online by a wide margin. For example, 69 percent of the students prefer entirely online, hybrid, or blended learning class options, leaving on-campus instruction as the top choice of only 31 percent. Students also say their most popular modalities are hybrid courses (22 percent) and fully online, asynchronous courses (15 percent).

Tyton’s consultants interpret this data as a milestone that reflects a fundamental shift in college students’ preferences. That’s because students now overwhelmingly favor fully online, blended online, and hybrid instruction formats in contrast to previous years. The analysts also believe that this shift developed because of three factors they observed among students: their changing expectations for learning, their demands for flexibility, and their growing up with K-12 educations that were loaded with digital learning experiences.

Live On-Air Insights From Dr. Montagnino

In December 2023, Dr. Montagnino gave a live evening news interview to WCAX-TV, the CBS affiliate in South Burlington, where she shared additional insights and analyses of the poll results with anchor Cat Viglienzoni. Here are four newsworthy excerpts from that broadcast’s segment:

Viglienzoni: I’m curious about this new survey that shows 84 percent of adults feel employers are more accepting of online degrees today than they were pre-pandemic. So has Champlain College itself noticed that?

Dr. Montagnino: So what we are seeing right now is an increase in new students that are coming to Champlain College Online, and about half of those students are coming to us from employer partnerships. So we are absolutely seeing this play out as an increase of interest from students.

Viglienzoni: Many colleges had held online classes for years, Champlain being one of them. So has the work now done online to earn a degree changed from pre-pandemic times?

Dr. Montagnino: I’ve been in online higher education for about two-and-a-half decades, and I will say that I think perception has caught up. The quality and the content and the rigor have always been there. It’s just there might not have been an understanding clearly about how students gain their skills—how they learn best in an online classroom. So I think that’s the piece that’s catching up.

You know, as we fast forward from the pandemic, so many people touched what is called “remote learning” and learned that there is tremendous value. Online learning is very dynamic and it is an enhanced version of remote learning. And so that’s the next step in helping people understand how valuable online learning can be.

Viglienzoni: The survey says 64 percent of adults now believe that an online degree for the tuition dollar is as valuable, if not more valuable, than an on-campus degree. Does that benefit schools like Champlain College more than schools that traditionally focused most of their resources on in-person learning?

Dr. Montagnino: I think it definitely benefits both. With an institution that has such a large number—we have about 80 degree programs that are offered online—we’re able to serve what the student needs. So if there’s a younger student that prefers in-person, you know, having Champlain College being able to deliver that experience to that student is important.

But then our average age of our students is 36. If they’re working full-time, if they see the advantage of the online environment with authentic active-based learning, and that’s their preference? Then that is going to be a great option, so that they can choose what’s best.

Viglienzoni: You brought up this employer partnership idea a couple of times during this conversation. Do you think that the thing that’s going to drive online learning, going forward, is this idea that you can very easily balance work and school at the same time?

Dr. Montagnino: Yes, I do think that our employers have known for quite some time the value of online learning because they have these full-time working adult students who need to go back and gain additional skills and enhance their education. They’ve known for quite some time that what we do in an online classroom is go back to the authentic active-base learning, where the employees that come to school with us often use their work environment to design their projects and assignments for class.

So they’re still getting that theory, but adults learn best when they can apply their life and work to the concepts from class. Employers really like that as well because then that’s enhancing the work product of the employees that are choosing to go back to school.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.