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Online Student Trends and Success Factors

Online learning is now an essential part of mainstream higher education. The Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) reports that the number and variety of institutions offering online programs have grown every year since its research began. Online enrollments are also higher than ever: of the more than 5.4 million U.S. college students who take online courses, nearly half are enrolled in 100 percent online programs. Online learners tend to be more diverse than their campus-based counterparts. They also have different needs and goals. This section provides a snapshot of the online student population, including the qualities and habits linked with online learning success.

Online education transcends barriers that once made higher education difficult or inaccessible for many people. EDUCAUSE credits this trend for not only the field’s rapid growth but also its unique student population. Both campus-based and online learners come from a range of backgrounds and circumstances. They pursue the same credentials in many of the same majors. When one digs a little deeper, however, online students’ goals and demographics can be quite different.

Key Demographics of Online Learners

Researchers have released several reports examining characteristics of the online student population, including the following insights.

  • Gender: More women than men enroll in online degree programs, especially at the undergraduate level.
  • Age: While the highest percentage of online learners fall between the ages of 25 and 29, online programs tend to attract a larger share of older, “nontraditional” students.
  • Family life: Unlike those at traditional campuses, about half of online learners are married with children under the age of 18.
  • Employment: Nearly 40 percent of undergraduate students and 60 percent of graduate students work full-time while attending online colleges and universities.
  • Ethnicity: Some colleges and organizations are using online programs and tools to improve college access for underrepresented students. While online colleges do enroll a slightly higher percentage of African American and low-income students than traditional campuses, experts suggest such initiatives are works in progress.
  • Proximity: Contrary to what one might expect, the majority of online students historically lived less than 100 miles from their institutions. However, according to a 2014 Learning House Report, this share is declining rapidly, falling from 80% to 54% in just two years.

As online education expands, so will the share of online students. While key demographics may shift and evolve, the surge of nontraditional learners is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

Nontraditional Students

The flexibility and accessibility of online degree programs make them popular among “nontraditional” students. Though the term “nontraditional” is often used to define anything that falls outside of the perceived norm, the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) uses specific characteristics to classify nontraditional students. According to its criteria, nontraditional learners fall into at least one of the following groups:

  • Full-time workers
  • Part-time students
  • Older students who delayed college or are seeking a second degree
  • Students who are financially independent
  • Parents to at least one dependent
  • Single parents

The Economist reports that nontraditional student enrollments grew by more than 200% between the 1990x and the 2000s. According to EDUCAUSE, the significant growth in adult learners correlates directly with advances in online education. This trend has more to do with college accessibility than a sudden interest in higher education. Online colleges offer nontraditional students a place to learn, despite professional, family, and other obligations. Dr. Jeff Seaman, Co-Director of the BSRG, discussed this trend during an interview with

“There was, and still is, wide agreement that many individuals who desire an education are unable to attend traditional on-campus programs. Whether because of job constraints, family responsibilities, limited mobility, remote location, or any of number of other reasons, these potential students found regular class attendance on campus was not possible,” said Dr. Seaman. “Online education has been tremendously successful in this respect. No one knows exactly how many additional students participated in higher education due to the availability of online offerings, but even the most conservative estimate puts this number in the millions. That is an amazing achievement.”

Military families are one of many groups who benefit from online learning’s flexibility.

Active Military Personnel, Veterans, and their Families

Active and veteran military service members often meet at least one NCES criterion listed above, but their unique needs and circumstances set them apart. The Learning House reports that in 2014, 17% of online learners were active or veteran military, their spouses, or their dependents. These students often face barriers that make it difficult, if not impossible to attend campus-based programs. Among them:

  • Stationed overseas with no access to higher education.
  • Serving in time zones that don’t align with traditional course times.
  • Susceptible to sudden transfers to different states or countries.
  • Living on a base where area colleges do not offer preferred

Access to higher education is important for men and women of the Armed Forces preparing for the civilian workforce. Most online colleges offer these students special programs and services, like converting military training and experience into college credit. Schools also tend to offer financial aid advising services that help active and veteran military personnel sort through and make the best use of civilian education benefit—something Matthew Rascoff, Vice President for Technology-Based Learning and Innovation at the University of North Carolina (UNC)—discussed with

“Active duty military and veteran students are incredibly important to the University of North Carolina. Their drive and discipline can make them some of our most successful students; and as citizens who’ve served our country, it’s important that we do as much as possible to support their success,” said Mr. Rascoff. “Each of our campuses, as well as our UNC system office, manages distinct efforts and programs aimed to support our military students.”

Military support programs can ease the transition from military to civilian education while online programs make it more successful. There are several additional population groups who benefit from the medium’s accessibility.

Additional Student Populations that Benefit from Online Degree Programs

Some student groups fall outside of the NCES’s definition of nontraditional learners, but benefit from online degree programs just as much as those who do. These students often have unique circumstances that make traditional courses unmanageable. Here are some of them.

  • Students with disabilities: Prospective students may have physical, emotional, or behavioral disabilities that make campus-based programs unsuitable or impossible to attend. Online learning management systems often incorporate adaptive features to support such students, such as speech-to-text and the ability to automatically adjust coursework to meet students’ individual learning needs.
  • Rural and international students: Online students are beginning to attend colleges and universities further from home than their predecessors did. In some cases, these students live outside the country. For students unable to report a campus within driving distance, online degree programs expand higher education options significantly.
  • Students who travel: Whether they are accomplished athletes on the road, entertainers, or full-time workers, some students may live near a campus, but travel too often to attend it. Online programs with asynchronous instruction—courses not delivered in real-time—can be particularly helpful when these students have unpredictable schedules.
  • Self-directed learners: Some students enjoy the spontaneity of a live classroom discussion; others prefer to learn alone. Online degree programs allow these students to attend college without crowded classrooms, group work, or strict learning schedules. Often students log in whenever and wherever they want to review materials and submit work. While some require students to meet firm deadlines, others allow them to advance through courses at their pace.

The above sections describe some of the students who attend online colleges and why. Researchers who have studied large samples of online students from all age groups and backgrounds offer a more complete picture of their motivations for attending.

Why Students Attend College Online

There are many reasons students might enroll in online colleges, but the ability to continue their studies while managing other obligations or major life transitions ranks chief among them. When The Learning House asked online students why they chose to earn degrees online, they frequently cited the following events:

  • A life event prevented me from continuing my education.
  • I got a new job that is incompatible with campus-based higher education.
  • I moved.
  • An online degree is more affordable than those of local institutions.
  • Classes were not available when needed elsewhere.

Each of these explanations describes unique circumstances that make online degree programs more accessible than classroom courses. They do not address students’ motivations for enrolling in the first place. Experts have investigated these as well.

What Motivates Online Students to Pursue Degrees

Each student is unique: they have their own motivations and learning goals. According to The Learning House’s report, these factors differ slightly among undergraduate and graduate students. Here are the motivations students cited for pursuing higher education.

Online Undergraduate Students

  • I wanted a job in a different field.
  • For the satisfaction of completing my education.
  • I need more education to get a new job.

Online Graduate Students

  • I am pursuing a promotion or new position in my current field.
  • For the satisfaction of completing my education.
  • I would like a new career in a different field.

Though their motivations differ, undergraduate and graduate students tend to consider the same criteria selecting online degree programs. Various surveys have explored this trend as well.

How Students Select Online Colleges

Choosing the right degree program requires time and research no matter how one reports to classes. This process might be trickier for students new to online education or unacquainted with the schools offering the right programs. The following describes the most common criteria student consider when selecting an online college or university, as reported by The Learning House.

  • Overall reputation of the college or university: Online students say their prospective school’s reputation is their primary consideration when selecting programs—something that is increasingly easy to evaluate. According to the BSRG, online enrollments are growing faster for public and private nonprofit institutions as those of for-profit colleges decline. These diverse institutions range from small liberal arts colleges to major universities. Prestigious Universities like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford also now offer online courses and degrees. Students may be more attracted to online programs if they view the school’s campus-based programs favorably.
  • Accreditation: Nearly 75% of online college students told The Learning House that accreditation is among their primary criteria for selecting programs. To be accredited, a third-party organization must carefully review a college’s teaching practices, financial policies, and other key features to verify that they comply with regulations and best practices. Note that some accreditation organizations are more reputable than others. The U.S. Department of Education advises prospective students to verify if schools and programs are accredited by firms recognized by it or the Counsel of Higher Education Administration.
  • Degree of flexibility and independence: Accessibility from a distance is perhaps one of online learning’s best-known Students living near campuses may study online to avoid commuting or prevent time conflicts. Given these circumstances, it seems natural that many online learners say they looked for online programs with no set meeting times or mandatory campus visits when selecting institutions.

Online Student Success Factors

Helping students succeed is core to any college’s mission. Many institutions look to learning outcomes, like program completion and employment rates, to gauge their own success. Researchers at Eduventures suggest student support services, easy-to-use technology, and a means of communicating with instructors improves such outcomes—a lead online colleges and universities increasingly follow. As helpful as these measures are, they cannot guarantee positive results; students must still make an effort to succeed. Research suggests that learners with certain qualities and habits are more likely to do so.

Characteristics of Successful Online Students

Some online colleges have published lists identifying some of the factors that contribute most to learning success. According to their research, successful online students are:

  • Persistent: According to iSeek, a service provided by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, persistence is perhaps the biggest key to online learning success. Persistent students set goals and commit to their programs. They work through challenges—personal, technical, or academic—and seek help when necessary. Having a strong support system can help.
  • Organized: Students attending fully online degree programs cannot rely on the structure physical classrooms provide. They must be able to complete assignments and meet deadlines independently, especially in self-directed degree programs. Organized students who manage their time wisely set themselves up for success. Many online learning platforms offer organizational tools within the virtual learning environment.
  • Use student support services: Stacey Ludwig-Johnson, Associate Provost of Academic Services at Western Governors University, told she would encourage online students to identify and take advantage of academic advising and career support services. These services provide direct support, like tutoring and advising, and can direct students to additional programs that might be of help. Career services are also important: according to Eduventures, students who relate online degree programs to specific career goals are more likely to succeed than those who do not.
  • Learn the technology: According to iSeek, online learners need basic technical skills to succeed in their programs. These include word processing, software installation, Internet navigation, and email. Students must also become acquainted with their institutions’ learning management systems to use them effectively. These platforms often feature tools and features that measure student progress and comprehension, which helps students and instructors identify and address academic challenges early. Many online colleges offer technology training programs for students new to their programs.
  • Ask questions: According to the Indiana College Network, a willingness to ask questions is an important factor for online learning success. Students who clarify concepts, assignments, and procedures they do not understand can complete their studies more efficiently than peers who delay or are uncomfortable doing so. Online students who do not know where to direct these questions can contact their school’s student services department.

These features by no means cover all of the various qualities that help online students succeed. Students who would like more advice and information can contact schools’ academic services departments for personalized support.

Note: Because the field of online learning is still growing and expanding, the information detailed above could change at any time. Readers who would like to review the latest student statistics and trends can visit organizations like the BSRG or the NCES online.