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Higher Education

Key Findings from Online College Students 2019

By Cait Etherington
June 12, 2019

In the first week of June, Learning House, Aslanian Market Research, and Wiley Education released Online College Students 2019. The report, first published in 2012, contains a vast trove of data on online learning. This year’s report also contains a lot of promising news about the online learning market, a few surprising insights, and several important recommendations.

As noted in the preface to this year’s Online College Students study, the growth of online college education is difficult to ignore. Since 2006, when the U.S. government lifted a ban on schools operating as 100% online institutions, the online learning sector has rapidly scaled. By 2016, close to one-third of college students were taking one or more online courses, and 17% were enrolled in fully online degree programs. Since 2016, the number of students enrolled in online programs has continued to grow. The rapid scaling of online education has opened up many new opportunities, but it has also created new challenges for colleges. This year’s report takes a critical look at these opportunities and challenges and provides educators and administrators with the data needed to make smarter decisions about how to expand their programs moving forward.

Methodology of Online College Students 2019

The Online College Students report is carried out by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research. The study is based on a sample of 1,500, and respondents were recruited from across the United States. All respondents were at least 18 years of age, had completed high school (or an equivalent), and were either recent graduates, currently enrolled, or planning to enroll in a fully online program at the undergraduate or graduate level, certificate program, or licensure program in the next year. Since graduate students account for an exceptionally high percentage of the online learning population, they were also well represented in the Online College Students survey (40%). Recruitment for the study was carried out via email.

Surprising Findings

Online students report gaining access to vital soft skills. More than a third of online learners believe their schools are providing these skills, which include critical thinking and writing skills. Critical thinking/problem-solving skills were viewed as the most improved soft skills (85% felt their program had helped them develop these skills). Teamwork skills were also ranked high (69% of respondents felt their program helped improve in this respect).

Another notable finding is that online learners appear to have a strong sense of loyalty to their online schools. More than 40% of graduates plan to take additional classes with their alma mater.

Online students also increasingly appear to be making the most of their school’s career support services. This finding seems to hold especially true with first-generation college students. First-generation college students enrolled in an online program are more likely to use the program’s online services to find an internship, participate in job fairs, or attend alumni networking events.


Not surprisingly, the 2019 study found that mobile learning continues to be popular. Over half of students surveyed said they had used a smartphone or tablet to complete at least some of their required course work. However, students over 45 appeared less likely to rely on mobile devices when engaged in online learning.

Another finding that is not entirely surprising regards demographics. About half of online learners are ages 28 to 38. Generation Xers, ages 39 to 54, represent a third of online learners. Boomers (those over 54) and younger learners (18 to 22) accounted for the other online learners who participated in the study.

It is also no surprise that affordability continues to be a top reason for choosing to study online. The survey also found that incentives—for example, the ability to try out a program for free and then apply the free courses to a degree program—is also a motivation for studying online.

What’s Changed Since 2012?

In 2012, less than half of online learners chose to take online courses at a nearby institution (i.e., an institution located within 50 miles of their home). Seven years later, 67% of online learners are enrolling in online programs situated close to home.  But this may reflect the fact that there are more online programs available now than there were in 2012 when the survey was first published.

Selected 2019 Recommendations

As always, this year’s report contains a series of recommendations on how to support online learning moving forward.

  • Be Attentive to Motivating Factors in Program and School Choice: When it comes to choosing a program, recommendations from friends and family appear to be a key factor. Online programs are advised to find new and innovative ways to leverage alumni recommendations. Also, the survey found that many online undergraduate students pursue an online program to secure an entry-level job. The report recommends combining programs with specific job categories in mind to help recruit potential learners. The study also highly recommends that schools ensure their first contact with students is positive since most students only reach out to one school before making their decision. In other words, in the online learning market, first impressions matter a great deal.
  • Retain and Update Legacy Program: Even as the demand for new programs increases, Online College Students 2019 doesn’t recommend abandoning existing programs. Instead, it strongly advises that institutions revise these programs to make them more market responsive.
  • Make Learning More Time Efficient: While learning takes time, there are ways to ensure it’s less time-consuming. For example, among other recommendations, Online College Students 2019 suggests providing audio versions of textbooks and required course readings so learners can learn on the go.
  • Focus on affordability: As already noted, affordability matters a great deal to online learners. As a result, even small scholarships can go along way. For example, this year’s report recommends offering small scholarships to offset textbook costs. It also highly encourages flexible payment plans.
  • Only Use Mobile-Compatible Learning Management Systems: Over 15% of online learners would like to use their mobile devices to study online but currently do not. The authors of Online College Students 2019 view this as a red flag, which likely suggests that these students are enrolled in programs at schools relying on learning management systems that are not mobile-friendly.
  • Scale Career Services: Given that most students in fully online programs enroll to fulfill a career goal (93%), online programs can’t afford to overlook the importance of career services. At present, not all students are using career services to the same extent. However, as already noted, a promising finding is that the online students who have most to gain from completing a college degree (i.e., first-generation learners) do appear to be taking advantage of career service offerings. On this basis, the authors of the report urge fully online programs to scale their career services further and promote them more widely. The study also suggests hiring additional staff members to support career services. This is especially important since many online programs are mainly or entirely taught by part-time faculty who may not be available to initiate career-related conversations.

To read the 2019 version of Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences, visit the Learning House website to download the full report.

Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash.