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Survey: Most Students Say Online Learning Is as Good or Better Than Face-to-Face

female student studying in a library, using laptop and learning online

In a survey of 1,500 students who are seriously considering, currently enrolled in or recently graduated from a fully online program, most (86 percent) considered the value of their degree equal to or greater than the cost they paid to take it. Among those who have attended face-to-face and online courses, the majority (85 percent) said that online learning is as good as or better than attending courses on campus. In fact, two-thirds of online college students (67 percent) reported that they'd achieved the original goal that motivated them to enroll in their program; graduate students were more likely than undergraduates to feel that way (76 percent vs. 62 percent).

The survey was conducted by Learning House, a company that manages online programs for colleges and universities, and Aslanian Market Research, a research arm of EducationDynamics, which performs student prospecting and enrollment management.

The most important factor for students choosing a school for their online program continues to be tuition and fees, specified by 34 percent of respondents. That has been the top-ranked choice for the past four years, according to the researchers. Far below, chosen by 13 percent, was reputation of the program, followed by reputation of the school and home location of the school (both selected by 11 percent).

Scholarships are a "strong draw" for online students and prospects, the survey found. When asked which would be the "most attractive way" a school could influence a student to choose it over another school, 25 percent of respondents said offering scholarships would make a difference. Those wouldn't have to be "large," the report added; a $500 annual scholarship would "sway" nearly four in 10 students. A tuition discount would persuade 23 percent of students; and a tuition payment plan would affect the decision of 21 percent of respondents. "Freebies" — a free course, free textbooks or free technology equipment, such as a computer — would play a factor in 31 percent of decisions.

The report offered a "common" price tag per credit for online programs. "At the undergraduate level, students rarely pay more than $800 per credit (10 percent)," the authors wrote. "The most common tuition rate is between $300 and $600 per credit." At the graduate level, a price of around $800 to $1,000 "appears to be the most common in the market."

At the undergraduate level, while business dominated as the field of study in 2014, chosen by 28 percent of students, by 2018 its share had shrunk to 23 percent. However, that was sufficient to keep it at the top of the list, followed by health and medicine (indicated by 18 percent of respondents in 2018), computers and IT (designated by 13 percent) and social sciences, criminal justice and law (11 percent). On the graduate side, business's domination, which stood at 28 percent in 2014, dropped to 21 percent in 2018. Runners-up included health and medicine (16 percent in 2018), computers and IT (15 percent) and education and training (14 percent).

The survey found that 59 percent of all online students reached out to two or three schools for information about an online program before deciding where to apply. Among graduate students, the average was 2.7 schools, vs. 2.4 schools for undergrads. Most people (57 percent) said they'd "probably" or "definitely" attend a traditional classroom program for their studies if what they wanted wasn't available in an online format.

A majority of undergrads said they had transfer credits to move into their next program. Almost a quarter (23 percent) had earned 60 or more credits. Interestingly, the share of students who would expect to find out how much of their previously earned credits would transfer to their new program before applying dropped from 44 percent in 2016 to 29 percent in 2018. However, among the remainder, 54 percent would expect to get a response on that within the first month after submitting their application.

The report noted that while 15 percent of respondents said they had no credits to transfer into their next program, they might have "some type of life experience or training that could translate into experiential credits." However, only about a third (32 percent) were awarded this type of credit during the application process; the others either didn't receive credit (36 percent) or were unsure (32 percent). The researchers' advice to institutions: Make sure that general transfer credit guidelines are clear on the website, including information about how the process works, how many credits the school can accept and what articulation agreements are in place.

"It's encouraging to see that a majority of students who are studying fully online are reporting great value and satisfaction with their online programs which are largely tied to ambitious career goals," said Todd Zipper, president and CEO of Learning House, in a prepared statement. "With an increasing population of savvier consumers with high expectations, institutions need to do better at offering more quality, diverse programs that are sensitive to cost in order to keep up with the growing demands of online college students."

The report is available with registration through the Learning House website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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