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Profile of Today's Online College Student

In this article, we will discuss the current profile of online college students, their proclivities, and growing trends of higher education with a specific eye on online programs and degrees.

Online learning is the fastest growing segment within higher education. In fact, current enrollment data suggests that over 3.5 million students are actively working towards a college degree online. While not a stunning fact in and of itself, it is important to remember that just a few short years ago the online college marketplace did not exist. Taking that into account, the swelling student body opting to enroll in online college degree programs is nothing short of impressive. To follow, online college enrollments are anticipated to swell to 5 million students by in the next four years.

A comprehensive longitudinal report by The Learning House this year has revealed a handful of key findings about online college students. We will cover the key drivers of the changing educational landscape along with pivotal trends that you need to know about.

Online College Students Are Sensitive to the Cost of Education

It should come as no surprise that cost is the single largest driver when it comes to the college selection process. Likewise, college students choosing an online learning environment are placing cost at the top of their respective priority list. Digging a bit deeper into the data shows that nearly half of students enrolled in an online college program use personal funds to pay for college.

A mere 1/3 of online college students receive a scholarship even though the scholarship route continues to be seen as a superior means to fund a college education. An curious piece of data in the report points to the fact that a scholarship in excess of $500 has the ability to potentially sway a students college of choice. It is also important to note a growing trend with the reduction in employer-sponsored college benefits programs thus shifting more of the onus to students than in the preceding four years.

Several Pathways Exist for Students to Earn Online Degrees

With a diverse student body, many students are looking to fit school into their life versus the reverse. A recent study from The Gates Foundation reveals that 62% of students work while attending college, nearly 40% of college students are between the ages of 22 & 39, and nearly 60% live off-campus. This diversity explains why an overwhelming percentage of students that enroll in an online program come with college credits in hand expecting them to transfer over in-full to their new program.

From an age standpoint, students also expect colleges and universities to provide credits for life experiences in an effort to compress their time enrolled at the college thus mitigating the overall cost of earning a degree. With a growing popularity in certificate programs and digital badges, it would not come as a surprise for colleges of the future to earn credits for a variety of alternate credentials.

A Growing Percentage of Students Are Choosing to Learn Online

Given an array of learning opportunities for prospective and current college students, more and more are electing to invest in online learning programs. The survey reveals that approximately half of the college students surveyed would likely not have enrolled in their current college program if it had not been offered online. Good news: satisfaction with online college learning programs continue to be very high. More specifically, nine of ten students that had taken campus-based classes said the online version was as good if not better.

Decisions About College Are Being Made More Rapidly Than Ever

For a variety of reasons, students looking to enroll in online college courses are doing so more quickly than ever. In fact, over two-thirds of students decide to apply to an online college or university program inside of a month. Students typically winnow down their options to less than three college alternatives and over half choose the college program first to grant admission.

On the other side of the coin, colleges and universities that offer online learning programs are now tasked to respond faster and communicate more efficiently than ever. Suffice it to say, at no other point in our history of higher education are students deciding to enroll so quickly and starting class faster than today.

Mobile Learning is Everywhere

According to a study by the Pew Institute, fully 96% of undergraduate students and 99% of graduate students have a mobile phone. The undeniable fact remains that mobile learning is everywhere. Nearly half of all students surveyed affirmed they performed research for college classes on their cell phones with a quarter of those students completing most of their online college courses via a mobile phone.

Further, two-thirds of prospective online college students anticipate using their mobile phones to complete their online college courses. Needless to say, the ubiquity of wireless mobile devices (albeit phones, laptops, or tablets) will continue to shape the way college students learn along with the way colleges and universities deliver their course curricula.

 Online Learning Stays Local

One of the much-touted benefits of online college programs is its mobility. Students can live in New York and attend classes in California remotely. Why then do students continue to choose online learning programs close to home? For the past five years, students have continued to reduce the radius of college programs from their home.

Data supports the trend of over three-quarters of online college students selecting a program within one hundred miles from home. Whether the factors are due to online program parity, convenience, comfort, program requirements, campus visits, or a combination thereof it seems like the trend to stay close to home is evident.

Growing Popularity of Information Technology and Computer Science

The single largest degree type conferred to college students is business, by a wide margin. In fact, the latest information from the Department of Education shows the number of business degrees conferred annually was well over 300,000. It is no surprise that the number of online college students enrolled in a business administration program is nearly 25% of all enrolled students. That being said, Information Technology and Computer Science programs have grown in excess of 100% in the past three years.

 College Student Demographics

Despite the fact the overall age of campus-based programs has been edging up and enrollment type (full-time versus part-time) has moved to more part-time students, the online college student is emerging as a unique group. As the fastest growing segment of the higher education system, the average age of online college students continues to drop.

The average age for an undergraduate student enrolled in an online program is now 29 years of age and 33 for graduate online students. Nearly 75% do not have children and overwhelmingly tend to be single. Approximately 60% of online students are enrolled in a four-year program and 40% are enrolled in a two-year program.

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