Online College Students by the Numbers

A decade ago, the quality of online degrees was questionable at best. That is rapidly changing. A segment once dominated by for-profit universities is booming as public universities join the fray. Many colleges are increasing their online degree options, and even Ivy League students can expect to take a few courses online.

online students by the numbersAbout 33 percent of college students are taking at least one course online, according to a survey by the Babson Survey Research Group. Schools and employers are recognizing that online courses can be just as effective — and sometimes more effective — than classroom courses. As universities embrace online learning, so does the acceptance of online degrees.

Eventually, one-third of college students expect to study online, one-third expect to study only on campus, and one-third will do both, according to a survey by Learninghouse and Aslanian Market Research. Competition is driving quality. Brick and mortar universities are increasingly offering online only degrees, pushing those already in the online courses market to expand the degrees they offer and improve their job placement rates.

Online degrees remain most popular for students working toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. A survey by Eduventures estimates that about 29 percent of online students are working toward an for associate’s degree, 42 percent toward a bachelor’s, 27 percent toward a master’s, and 3 percent toward a doctorate. Expect those numbers to shift in coming years. Business has long been the most popular degree online, and Fortune magazine reports that some MBA programs are now enrolling more students online than in traditional programs.

If the increasing quality of online programs has you thinking of bypassing the classroom, we can help you decide. We’ll dig into the data that shows who is learning online, why students are choosing this path, and what employers think about online degrees.

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Those who began college but didn’t finish

Online programs rarely draw the 18-year-olds who spent the summer touring college campuses with Mom and Dad. The greatest proportion of online students are in their late 20s and early 30s, according to a survey by Learninghouse and Aslanian Market Research. And about 80 percent of online students have earned some college credits elsewhere.

Online programs are increasingly willing to accept transfer credits in an effort to accommodate these students. The University of Washington created an online program with reduced tuition specifically for students who already had some college. The state’s universities estimated that there were 900,000 adults in Washington state alone who had begun college but hadn’t finished.

Those who are balancing a career or family, or both

The flexibility of online programs is ideal for students who are working or taking care of a family. In a survey of students who had left a campus degree program and later begun an online degree, 43 percent said that a personal event had prevented them from completing their classroom studies. The second most common reason given was that the student had started a job that interfered with class attendance. Nearly half of online students have children.

Online courses allow workers to fit their education around their work schedule. Online students who are also parents can do schoolwork in the evenings or on weekends, saving the cost of childcare. Some parents who have stayed home to raise children see an online degree as a way to jumpstart their re-entry to the work force.

Those who want to change fields or move up in their careers

In a survey of students enrolled in online programs, the top reasons that undergrads gave for pursuing their degree were: I wanted a career in a new field; I wanted the satisfaction of completing my education; and I needed more education for a better job. In some cases, an employer will pay some or all of the tuition for employees who return to college. Both Starbucks and Wal-Mart have formed partnerships with online universities to offer their employees discounted tuition.

Students are less likely to complete online courses

Students are nearly twice as likely to withdraw or fail introductory math and English courses in online programs, according to a study by the Community College Research Center. These gatekeeper courses are designed to weed out students who need remedial education. An editorial in The New York Times laments that struggling students tend to fall even farther behind when they enroll in online courses because instructors are less likely to offer academic intervention.

Online study requires more discipline

In a survey of chief academic officers, 41 percent said that it was harder to retain students taking online courses than classroom courses, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. That number comes with some caveats. Online courses more frequently attract students who face barriers to education or are reluctant to enroll, so the dropout rate may have as much to do with the students as with the course style. However, in a study by Public Agenda, both students and employers agreed that online courses required more discipline. The upside: Some employers view an online degree as a badge of discipline and perseverance.

Seek out quality

The rarity of online degrees used to be enough to attract students. Not anymore. The top three reasons students gave for selecting a school were: overall reputation of the school, cost, and having the ability to set their schedule, according to the Learninghouse and Aslanian Market Research survey. Students said they would choose a higher-rated school over the cheapest option, and graduate students were the most likely to prioritize a school’s reputation. The first step in finding a reputable school is checking that it is accredited. The U.S. Department of Education keeps a database.

Make job placement a priority

A school’s reputation is based largely on the ability of its graduates to land jobs and succeed at those jobs. In the past, online schools have faced criticism over their job placement rates. Until 2012, the University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit school in the country, didn’t have career-counseling services for its graduates, Time magazine reports. The Senate denounced the school in a report, and shortly after that, the school launched a new job placement initiative.

Students want to know that their degree will pay off. When surveyed, online students said that the best way a school could market itself was with a high rate of job placement, according to Learninghouse and Aslanian Market Research. Some schools are even working with employers to design their curriculum.

Broaden your search

Not long ago, job candidates wanted to avoid raising questions about their online degrees because many employees viewed the degrees as inferior. A Texas worker could proudly claim her degree from a Texas university without questions, whereas a person who held a job in Texas while earning a degree from a school in North Carolina would draw scrutiny. With broader acceptance of online programs, students are able to choose the school that best fits their needs.

In 2012, a survey found that 80 percent of students chose a school within 100 miles. In 2014, that figure was 54 percent, according to Learninghouse and Aslanian Market Research. And many schools are adding specializations and certifications to set themselves apart.

Business and nursing have long been the most popular programs among students studying online, according to data from Aslanian Market Research. Schools are rapidly increasing degree and certification options, and many majors are further divided by specialty. Some schools will even allow students to work with advisors to design an individualized degree program.

Top majors for undergraduates:

  • Business administration
  • Nursing
  • IT
  • Criminal justice
  • Early childhood education
  • Psychology
  • Medical billing
  • Accounting
  • Computer science and engineering
  • Social work

Top majors for graduate students:

  • Business administration
  • Nursing
  • Elementary education
  • Educational administration
  • Criminal justice
  • Health administration
  • Psychology
  • General mental health counseling
  • Special education


online students by the numbersThe majority of online students choose this format because of its flexibility. Even students at brick-and-mortar schools are increasingly expecting that classes be offered at multiple times so that they can fit in work responsibilities. In a survey by Laureate and Zogby Analytics, 44 percent of college students said that they expect college courses will someday be offered without set times to allow students more flexibility.

Online classes can also benefit students who might struggle in a big lecture hall, according to an article in The Guardian. Students with dyslexia and those who speak English as a second language can view Web videos and slides more than once if they need to.


College tuition is skyrocketing. In many cases, tuition for an online degree is slightly less than that for a campus degree. This is logical: Schools pay a lot to maintain their beautiful buildings and grounds, not to mention state-of-the-art recreation centers. In a few cases, the online discount is drastic. The Berklee College of Music recently began offering online degrees that cost half as much as those earned on campus, according to The Boston Globe.

Usually, the biggest savings come from living at home instead of on a college campus. Online students also save in transportation, and for those with children, the cost of childcare.


Nearly 90 percent of online students surveyed said that online study was as good as or better than classroom study. And their professors agreed! Seventy-four percent of academic leaders believed that online learning was as good as or better than face-to-face learning, according to the Babson Survey Research Group.

Combatting the perception that online learning is isolating, some students and professors said that online debates were more robust because the Internet provided a layer of anonymity.

Many employers prefer a traditional degree, but opinions are shifting

In a survey, 56 percent of employers said that they would prefer an employee with a degree from an average-rated traditional school to an employee with an online degree from a top-rated school. However, views of online education are improving. A 2011 survey of adults found that fewer than one-third believed that an online education was as good as a traditional degree. In 2013, nearly half of adults believed the two were of similar quality.

One bright spot for students who are well into adulthood: Employers said they viewed online education as a good way for older college students to improve skills, according to Public Agenda.

Some employers are embracing online education

Ever heard of Western Governors University? Neither had most employers, so the private school began seeking their input on curriculum, according to Time magazine. Now those employers are eager to hire the college’s graduates. Similarly, UPS has partnered with schools to create a curriculum that will yield graduates with skills that meet company needs.

An online degree still carries more uncertainty than a traditional degree. Students are less likely to finish their education, and employers are more likely to raise questions. But online degrees are rapidly gaining support from colleges and employers, and this trend is expected to accelerate. Students entering an online program today will likely find the job market even more welcoming when they finish.