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Data from Survey of Online College Students Helps Institutions Thrive

By David Clinefelter / December 2015

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While overall college enrollments are shrinking, the proportion of students studying online continues to increase. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollments declined by close to 2 percent in 2014, yielding 18.6 million college students today [1]. About 5.5 million of these students are studying partially or fully online. Not only is the number of students studying online growing, but so too is competition for those students. Between 2012 and 2013, 421 institutions launched online programs for the first time, an increase of 23 percent, bringing the total number of institutions offering online programs to 2,250. This article reports three conclusions and some of the findings that support them from the fourth annual "Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences" survey. The goal of the survey was to provide information that would be helpful to leaders of online programs as they position their institutions to thrive in this increasingly competitive environment. Does your institution offer the best programs at the right price? How do you communicate this to prospective students?


In the spring of 2015, Learning House and Aslanian Market Research conducted a survey of 1,500 individuals nationwide who were: At least 18 years of age; had a minimum of a high-school degree or equivalent; and were recently enrolled, currently enrolled or planning to enroll in the next 12 months in either a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree program, or a fully online certificate or licensure program. The patterns and preferences of the sample of individuals surveyed are reflective of online students as a whole, and the data reflect a national template of the behavior and preferences of these students.

Field of Study Drives the Selection Process

More than 60 percent of respondents began by selecting the program they were interested in studying, such as nursing, and then choose which institution they wanted to attend. One-quarter of students reported selecting both a program and institution at the same time. If an institution doesn't offer the program an online student is looking for, many will not even consider enrolling in that institution. Therefore, to appeal to the largest audience, schools need to offer the specific programs and degrees that are most in demand in their region.

Figure 1. Which Did You Decide First?

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Program selection. Further, students were asked to identify the most important single reason for selecting an institution. The strongest driver for their selection was the online program being the best match for them.

Table 1. Reason for Institution Selection

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Number of institutions considered. One additional question indicates how important it is to offer the "right" programs. One-third of students considered only the institution in which they enrolled when deciding to pursue their education online. On average, between two and three schools were considered by online students. Graduate students were slightly more likely to consider more than one institution. For a substantial number of students, if their first choice college or university offers the program they want, they don't look elsewhere.

Table 2. Number of Schools Considered

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Most popular majors. The following table shows the most popular undergraduate majors. Business administration was by far the most popular major, with almost four times more students selecting it over nursing, which was the next most popular field of study. When combined, computer science and engineering and information technology surpassed nursing. After that, there was little difference in the rankings from numbers five to 15. These top three majors were the same for graduate students.

Table 3. Most Popular Undergraduate Majors

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The Takeaway. Because online students typically decide on their major and then search for an institution that offers that major, it makes sense for leaders to offer the programs most in demand in their region. The more majors or fields of study, the better. How this information is presented also can make a difference. For example, a business major can be presented as a single major, or it can be subdivided into specializations such as marketing, finance, human resource management, and leadership and listed as four fields of study.

Affordability is Paramount

Since we began administering the survey, we have asked students to select the three most important institutional attributes from a provided list. Reputation and cost have consistently been the top two answers, and this year, cost was the top answer for the first time. For the past two years, students were directly asked, "Did you select the most inexpensive institution/program?" This year, 44 percent of the undergrads and 45 percent of the graduate students reported selecting the cheapest option.

Figure 2. Did You Select the most Inexpensive Institution/Program?

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Marketing matters. Cost also shows up in a question about the top marketing message. Respondents were asked to rank appealing marketing messages in seven categories; they were then given the entire list of potential marketing messages and asked to select the three most appealing. Online students rated "affordable tuition" (36 percent) as the top overall message of the 25 messages they viewed, followed by "free textbooks" (31 percent ) and "high job placement rates" (27 percent ). Of the seven categories, messages about affordability, enrollment incentives, and career improvement were the areas with the most appeal.

Quality counts. While price is an important consideration, students are also concerned about the quality of the institution and the education they will receive. However, they may have a difficult time ascertaining what is evidence of quality. Students were asked, "What factors were important to you in deciding if a college or university has a good reputation?" The overwhelming majority equated quality with institutional accreditation (63 percent). As a measure of quality, accreditation has declined by 10 percentage points, but it still remains the top factor students use to measure an institution's reputation. Every year U.S. News & World Report publishes online program rankings, but just 20 percent of online students cited these rankings as a measure of reputation. Being viewed as high quality by employers, family, or friends is a more salient influencer of reputation than these national rankings, and increased by 9 percentage points from 2014.

The Takeaway. Students cite accreditation as an important factor, yet almost every institution is accredited. Students may be assuming that most institutions are of comparable quality because they are accredited, which makes choosing the cheapest option a good decision. If institutions charge more than their regional competitors, it behooves them to make the case to prospective students that they are receiving higher quality commensurate with higher price.

The Website Is Critical

The college or university website is a critical source of information. It is likely a significant percentage of students base their decision solely on information from the website, without ever speaking with someone from the institution. Sixteen percent of respondents reported having no contact with personnel at the institution prior to applying. Similarly, 43 percent of students reported using the website to request more information about their program of interest.

The website is prospective students' top method of gathering information about a program. Forty-nine percent reported turning directly to the college website when they were asked, "What were your primary methods of gathering detailed information?"

Critical information in the selection process. We also asked students about what information was most important in selecting an institution. Tuition and fees were the most important information for 74 percent of prospective online students when deciding which institution to select. Admission requirements (59 percent ) and the degrees offered (50 percent ) were also highly sought information for more than half of online students. Financial aid information was significantly more important to undergraduate students, but it only ranked seventh for all students.

Table 4. Desired Information When Choosing an Institution

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Sharing prospective costs. Cost is a major concern for online students, and one of the top information items they look for on the institution's website. Online students looked at the cost of their online program nearly equally in terms of the cost per course (35 percent ) or the total degree cost (38 percent ). One-fifth (20 percent ) considered the cost per credit. It is a challenge to present total degree cost because most online students receive some transfer credit. Presenting historical averages of the amount students actually paid by program would be a good way to communicate cost.

Table 5. How Students Consider Cost

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The Takeaway. Institutional leaders may elect to communicate information using a variety of media, but the website is the primary information gathering tool for online students. Everything a student needs to know about the institution should be readily accessible online.


There are a myriad of factors that leaders need to take into account as they develop online programs. Three of the most important are offering programs in high demand within the region; at a competitive tuition rate; and operating an attractive, informative, easy-to-use website. In the competition for online students, knowing why and how they make their decisions can be a game changer.

Disclosure: The author is an employee of The Learning House, Inc.


[1] National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Current Term Enrollment Report-Spring 2015. May 13, 2015.

About the Author

Dr. David Clinefelter is the chief academic officer at The Learning House, Inc. in Louisville, KY, where he develops academic tools, training, and strategies for the company's online higher education partners. Clinefelter's 30-year career in education spans both K-12 to higher education. At the postsecondary level, he has served as President of Graceland University and the chief academic officer at Kaplan University and Walden University.

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