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.
Researchers have released several reports examining characteristics of the online student population, including the following insights.
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.
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:
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 OnlineEducation.com.
“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 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:
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 OnlineEducation.com.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
Online Graduate Students
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
"Longitudinal Study of Online Learners: Shoppers, Swirlers, Stoppers, and Succeeders as a Function of Demographic Characteristics," Mellissa Layne, Wallace E. Boston, Phil Ice, American Public University System, via the University of West Georgia
"Fast Facts: Distance Learning," Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics
"The Digital Degree," The Economist, June 28, 2014
"Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences," Learning House, Aslanian Market Research, 2014
"What Makes a Successful Online Learner?" iSeek Education, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities
"The Online Learner: Characteristics and Pedagogical Implications," Nada Dabbagh, Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education
"Characteristics of a Successful Online Student," Fairmont State University