As a rising number of reputable schools offer online degrees, a growing proportion of prospective online students research and consider multiple options, often favoring access to a campus nearby and quickly reaching a decision, according to a recent survey.
Those and other findings are revealed in “Online College Students,” a June report by Aslanian Market Research and the Learning House, a company that helps colleges and universities create online degree programs. The annual report – now in its sixth year – surveyed about 1,500 prospective, current and past online undergraduate and graduate students.
In the survey, 52 percent of respondents said they contacted or requested information from three or more schools during the search process – a significant rise from 29 percent last year. The proportion who looked into just one program fell to 18 percent in 2017 from 30 percent in 2016.
“I think that’s a result of more and more institutions getting into the game, so to speak, and offering online programs,” says Dave Clinefelter, a consultant for the Learning House and a co-author of the study.
T.J. Summerford, associate director of operations at UF Online, the undergraduate arm of the University of Florida, agrees this may be the result of more public and private nonprofits continuing to launch high-quality online degree programs.
[Learn why online learning is growing at private nonprofit schools.]
“Perhaps it is an indication of a greater diversity of options in the marketplace so students are shopping around more,” he said via email. “I think it also might indicate a shift away from dominance by large, nation-wide for-profit schools.”
Nearly three-quarters of online students enroll in institutions located within 100 miles of their home, about the same as last year, according to the survey. That’s likely for a number of reasons, including access to face-to-face support services, experts say. Fifty-nine percent said they travel to campus between one and five times each year.
“Over the years, not everybody was offering online programs in a given region,” says Carol Aslanian, founder and president of Aslanian Market Research and the survey’s other co-author. “Now, it’s increasing. You can hardly find a school in a region that does not offer some online program.”
Part of the appeal of a local online degree program may stem from prospective online students’ desire for regular interaction with their classmates and instructors. More than half of online students said interaction was important to them in their program, with a quarter also saying their online program could improve in that area.
Online students also generally still want to choose their online program quickly, the report suggests. In the survey, 60 percent said they spent no more than four weeks searching forand applying to an online college – a drop from last year’s 71 percent. Nearly 30 percent did so in less than two weeks.
Prospective online students likewise expect potential schools to provide them key information in a timely manner or even upfront. In fact, almost half of the respondents wanted to know how much financial aid they would receive before even starting their applications.
[Explore tips to apply to top online bachelor’s programs.]
“These students are fast,” says Clinefelter. “They make decisions quickly. Oftentimes within a few months, they’ve done their search, picked an institution, applied and enrolled.”
Given the combination of speed and the rising number of online degree numbers available, three-fifths of online students would alter some component of their search process if they could do it over, the survey found. In addition, nearly a quarter wish they had reached out to more schools.
During that search process, price was the No. 1 factor when students picked an online program, according to the survey. Still, three-quarters of online students said they did not ultimately choose the cheapest option, also considering reputation, location and course content.
And they value strong career services. Two-thirds of respondents whose online college doesn’t have career services said they wanted these services, and 77 percent of those with access to career services reported using them.
While in the past many online students already held jobs and knew where they were headed professionally, online students are becoming younger on average, Aslanian says.
“They’re looking for a lot of change and opportunities to move ahead,” she says, especially when it comes to increasing their salaries.
Among the study’s other key findings:
• In undergraduate online education, arts and humanities are becoming more popular among students. Fourteen percent of respondents said they were pursuing that type of degree – up from 9 percent in 2014.
• Students are becoming more familiar with competency-based education, which focuses on teaching concrete skill sets, often allowing students to progress faster through what they already know. In 2017, 27 percent of respondents said they were unaware of competency-based education, down from 35 percent in 2013.
• Eighty percent of online students use a mobile device when searching for an online program, and 40 percent use it to access their learning management system, or online classroom.