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Who Is the ‘Traditional’ Online Student? What do they Study? And Where?

By Henry Kronk
April 10, 2019

It used to be that the ‘traditional student’ left high school and immediately enrolled in college. The non-traditional student was everyone else. Now, the ‘everyone else’ category, by some measures, exceeds its counterpart. In 2019, the term ‘non-traditional student’ has taken on almost slur-like qualities in higher ed contexts. Among the more politically correct circles, it is taboo. This is not because it is inherently insulting, but because it is hopelessly imprecise and growing only more dilute as time goes on. But one does not need to be imprecise. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has been collecting data on American learners for over 150 years. Using their information, this article is going to produce a more defined picture of a subset of students who were formerly labeled ‘non-traditional’: online students. It will focus specifically on online learners who are pursuing their entire degree online. What schools do they go to? What majors are they pursuing? What are their chances of graduating?

To answer this question, I’m going to use the annually published Digest of Education Statistics. It came out in January of this year and, over 905 pages, provides insights on the learners who were studying at various grade levels during the 2015-16 school year, the last for which data is available. 

Insights from the National Center of Education Statistics

The amount of learners taking online courses has grown steadily since they were first introduced on a wide scale in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Table 311.22 on page 455 of the document provides insight into the current percentage of learners taking an online course based on a variety of factors and compares them to three previous school years: ’03-’04, ’07-’08, and ’11-’12. Just 15.6% learners took any distance or online course back in ’03-’04. Some of these were enrolled in correspondence programs. The term didn’t switch from ‘distance education’ to ‘online class or program’ until after 2008. By the end of the year in 2016, of the 19,308,000 undergraduates enrolled in a Title IV degree-granting institution, 8,319,000, or 43.1% of the total, took at least one online course. 

The amount of learners taking their entire degree online (EDO), as one might expect, is smaller and has experienced a lesser degree of growth.  The online- or distance-only undergrad population grew from 4.9% in ’03-’04 to 10.1% twelve years later. Of note, the total percentage shrank in ’07-’08 to 3.8%, rebounding to 6.5% in ’11-’12. Most of the growth in EDO students, therefore, has occurred in the last few years.

So—who is the typical online student?

To begin, most are women. More women have been enrolling in higher ed than men in general in recent years. In ’15-’16, there were 10,903,000 female undergrads compared to 8,406,000 male counterparts. 12.1% of the female population took their EDO, compared to 9.2% of males. Male-female is the only distinction the NCES makes regarding gender, and does not allow for gender non-conforming individuals any options to distinguish from their biological sex. 

Many educators expected this would occur from the get-go in part because online learning allows mothers to study while also caring for their child or children on more of an as-needed basis. 

The racial breakdown of online learners, however, is far more surprising. Going off the percentage of total, Black learners are more likely to take their EDO. 14.9% of the population did so in ’15-’16. Next in terms of percentage come Native Americans and Alaskans at 12.2%, followed by Pacific Islanders at 12.0%, followed by White students at 11.1%, followed by learners of two or more races at 10.4%. Asian and Hispanic enrolled in EDO programs at significantly lower rates—7.8% and 7.7%, respectfully.

A graph of EDO as a percentage of total online students broken down by race.
Data from NCES.

Keep in mind, the total number of undergrads by race varies far more dramatically. In ’15-’16, total numbers went as follows: 10,276,000 White, 3,006,000 Black, 3,723,000 Hispanic, 83,000 Pacific Islanders, 160,000 Native Americans and Alaskans, and 661,000 two or more races. In light of these figures, it grows all the more mysterious why nearly twice as many Black learners were taking their EDO compared to Hispanic students. It should also be noted that these breakdowns have remained more or less consistent since ’03-’04. 

Age breakdowns, by comparison, are far more intuitive. Just under 8 million undergrads were older than 24 in ’15-’16. These learners, however, were far more likely than those 15-23 to take their EDO. 17.5% of learners aged 24-29 took their EDO, while nearly a quarter—24.9%—of those over 30. Among the ‘traditionally’ aged learners, only 3.5% were all online. 

Many have also long believed that individuals with children will be more likely to take online courses. The data wholly supports this, but also adds surprising twists. Like younger undergrads, individuals who claimed ‘dependent’ status on their tax returns were far less likely to take their EDO. Only 1.9% of the 9,772,000 students who were dependents in ’15-’16 took their EDO. Among those who were either married, had kids, or both, the percentages jump into the 20s. They run as follows: married without kids – 20.8%, unmarried with kids – 22.9%, married with kids – 27.1%. Among those who were unmarried without kids but claimed independent status, 14.9% took their EDO. 

These are the typical learners. Going off percentages, a Black married mother over 30 has the highest likelihood of pursuing her entire degree online. Meanwhile, a dependent Hispanic man under the age of 24 who is unmarried and has no kids is the least likely to pursue his EDO. 

EDO as a percentage of total students by age.
Data from NCES.

But—what are these individuals studying (or not studying)? And at what types of institutions?

Going by field of study, the highest percentage of learners between ’03-’04 and ’07-’08 have pursued online degrees in computer science. This population, however, has been closely followed by those studying business. Beginning in ’11-’12, the biggest population switched to business learners and has remained their ever since. In ’15-’16, the percentages stood at 17.0% and 16.1% for business and CS, respectively. It should be noted that, in the same year, 2,973,000 were studying business while just 852,000 were going after computer science degrees.

Third place in the percentage leaderboard also makes for an interesting story. Health has held the position, except in ’11-’12, when it flipped to social/behavioral sciences. Education has also always followed close behind. 

Most of the of the class in ’15-’16 (14,491,000 out of 19,308,000) have studied in a public institution. A much smaller portion (2,955,000) went to a private non-profit university or college. That leaves 1,861,000 who went to a private for-profit college. 

While that’s the breakdown for total attendance numbers, the percentage of these students taking their EDO is flipped on its head. Over a third (33.5%) of for-profit college students are online all the way. The figure is 17.8% among private non-profits and 6.3% with public institutions. 

This has not always been the case. While for-profits have always led the pack in terms of percentage of EDO students, public universities outpaced private non-profits back in ’03-’04 (4.7% vs. 4.1%, respectively). 

Online degrees then, for some reason, went into a decade-long decline. The percentage of public students taking their EDO did not surpass ’03-’04 levels until the ’15-’16 school year. At private non-profits, meanwhile, the percentage declined in ’07-’08, but bounced back to 4.5% in ’11-’12 and then positively surged to 17.8% in ’15-’16. This last point probably marks the largest increase in data presented in this article. 

The final question to ask is: what percentage of these students will graduate in 6 years?

A group of graduating students.
Caleb Woods, Unsplash.

The current 6-year graduation rate for undergrads in the U.S. is 60.3%. NCES compiles data on “primarily online institutions” (POI) These are defined as those which “have more than 90 percent of their students attending classes exclusively online. Other institutions may have some online offerings, but they are not primarily online.”

In other words, the following data doesn’t apply to all EDO students, but simply those who attend a school where 90% of their peers are also taking online courses or degrees. 

These institutions represent just 80 out of 4,358 Title IV colleges and universities. But of this section, most students never graduate. Just 11.3% of students received a degree six years after beginning. 

At private for-profit POIs, however, the forecast is sunnier—46.5% graduate in 6 years. With only 6 public POIs, there wasn’t enough of a sample for NCES to calculate their graduation rate. That means at for-profit POIs, just 9.8% of enrollees graduate in 6 years. 

So, for learners interested in pursuing their entire degree online: you statistically have a much higher likelihood of receiving a degree if you attend a private non-profit institution. The jury is still out with public institutions, but at private for-profits, fewer than 1 in 10 students leave with a degree after 6 years of studying online.

Featured Image: Samuel Zeller, Unsplash.

One Comment

  1. Everybody except me says MOOCs are for adults + already degree holders .
    I say age 18 to 23 , that is 6 years are college years .
    There are roughly 4 million times 6 years = 24 million youngster who can go to college .
    But today there are 20 million enrollment in HE system . About 75 % of those ( 15 million ) attend to not really good universities . Therefore today there are 25 million BA degree holders who are underemployed or unemployed . So this 15 million plus 5 million never entered the doors of a college need good and low cost higher education . Solution is today online tomorrow Virtual Reality degree programs BY 200 OR SO top UNIVERSITIES . Problem is youngsters not adults . But nobody says so .