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Study Reveals New Challenges for Online College Administrators

By Rachel Wang / January 2015

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Online education has gone from a rarity offered by few programs to a normal part of college operations. Yet university administrators are now facing new challenges in producing online degree programs that attract and keep students.

The "Online College Students 2014: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences" report, a joint project of The Learning House and Aslanian Market Research, surveyed 1,500 online college students for their annual study. The students, who were at least 18 years old with a high-school degree or equivalent, were in various stages of enrollment (recently enrolled, currently enrolled or planning to enroll within a year) in an online certificate, licensure, undergraduate, or graduate program. Most answers were an aggregation of both undergrad and graduate students unless there was a striking difference between the two groups.

Although the program's authors believe the "patterns and preferences of the sample of individuals interviewed is reflective of online students as a whole, and the data reflect a national template of the behavior and preferences of these students," tracking online student data is still in its infancy. However, with 1,500 students interviewed, the study's sampling error comes in at +/-3 percent at a 95 percent confidence level making the conclusions drawn worth noting, particularly for administrators who want to recruit and retain online students.

With so many schools offering online programs now, students can afford to be choosy about where they attend and what they study. In fact, the study found more and more online students are enrolling in colleges far away from their homes. The convenience of a close school is no longer the biggest draw. To stay competitive in today's college market, administrators must take in consideration factors like employment status, financial aid, credit transfer, and length of time to enroll.


Many online programs are geared to working professionals who are earning their degree over the span of a few years. According to the study, however, the number of online students working full time has decreased from 60 percent in 2012 to 46 percent in 2014. Unemployment is instead on the rise, from 16 percent in 2012 to 30 percent in 2014.

Whether it's the hope that a degree will open up a new career field, different positions, or simply make them more marketable, more and more unemployed adults are going back to school.

With so many unemployed students, program length may be an issue. Instead of degree programs (particularly graduate) that can be completed part-time over a few years, accelerated programs may be more alluring to these students. By earning a degree in a year or two, they may be able to secure employment with their new skill set. Attracting these students may mean adding relevant and in-demand degrees that translate well to the workforce, if administrators want to help set their program apart.

Financial Aid

With this increase in unemployment has also come an increase in student loans and financial aid. According to the "Online College Students" report 40 percent of students are relying solely on those funding sources for their degree. Approximately 20 percent of online college students pay for their degree out of pocket, with the rest relying on a mix of loans, savings, employer assistance, and other sources.

If these trends continue, administrators may not be able to provide every student with the full amount of financial aid needed. High tuition and other fees may drive away students. Instead, to attract new students, administrators may have to rely on other compelling aspects of their online programs, such as the amount of credits transferred or reputation.

Transfer Credits

The study limited research to just undergraduates on this topic, as many graduate programs strictly limit transfer credits. According to the report, online students care deeply about how transferring credits. This makes sense, as nearly 80 percent of undergrads had credits to transfer, with 39 percent having more than 31 credit hours (some had more than 90).

Although colleges do have a variety of stances on previously earned credits, a generous transfer policy will certainly appeal to online students—something for administrators to evaluate, particularly as only 52 percent indicated that their credits at least partially transferred.

Time Spent Deciding to Enroll

Unlike many high-school students who spend months researching colleges, online students are quick to enroll. Forty-two percent of respondents spent less than four weeks to find a college and enroll, while 65 percent took less than eight weeks.

The researchers noted last year, 51 percent of online students enrolled within three months of starting their search, but this year, 77 percent had made a decision in that same amount of time. The length of time online students spend searching for a school appears to be dropping.

Administrators must realize students are making prompt decisions about their online education and they may have just one shot at pitching their program. Having a strong marketing campaign, knowledgeable staff, and great follow-up will help keep their program relevant and compelling.

Other Considerations

A higher percentage of students are attending for-profit institutions (50 percent of undergrads, as compared to 39 percent in 2013). The study's authors found this to be particularly surprising, as the trend had been previously going down. If more students continue to enroll in for-profits, non-profit administrators will certainly need to take note and examine possible reasons.

The study also noted price and reputation are still very important to students. Accreditation, recognition, rankings and recommendations all factored into students' evaluation. Price—and getting a good value for a degree—was important, but other factors, such as asynchronous classes and a simple admission process, also played a role.

As the report's authors note, "As competition intensifies, the convenience of online study is less compelling to students. Outcomes such as placement rates and features such as price and credit transfer are gaining importance as attractive points of difference. Institutions need to articulate clearly what makes their online programs distinct and track student outcomes to provide quantifiable data to prospective students."

This study should serve as a reminder to administrators that online learning is an ever-changing field where students' needs continue to evolve, and to have a strong presence in online education administrators will have to advance with them.

Further Reading

Clinefelter, D. L. and Aslanian, C. B. Online college students 2014: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. The Learning House, Inc., Louisville, KY, 2014.

About the Author

Rachel E. Wang is a freelance writer, editor and content manager based out of the Midwest. She specializes in online education trends and news. She holds a master's degree in library and information science from Kent State University.

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