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Survey: Students Choosing Online Programs Closer to Home

college student working on computer

In spite of the notion that students could conceivably take online courses from an institution anywhere in the world, two-thirds stick close to home — choosing a college or university within 50 miles of where they live. In fact, 44 percent selected a school within 25 miles of their homes. And the share of students enrolling in a school more than 100 miles from home fell from 37 percent in 2014 to 15 percent in 2019.

That's probably a result of students having more online options for choosing schools closer to home, suggested the researchers behind an annual survey of online students done by Wiley company Learning House. An advantage of going local is that the institutions "have greater visibility among employers and others in the community," a report of the findings stated. Learning House offers online program management for colleges among its services.

The report, 2019 Online College Students Report, developed in collaboration with Aslanian Market Research, a division of EducationDynamics, focused on the challenges institutions must grapple with as they're developing online programs. The survey queried 1,500 students who said they were prospects for fully online programs within the next year or were currently enrolled in or recently graduated from online programs.

If there were any such being as a "typical" online student, according to the results, she would be female (making up six in 10 students), nearly 32 years old, employed full-time, likely single and childless. Also, she wouldn't be the first in her family to attend college and she would have transfer credits to apply to her degree.

While the bulk of students surveyed are pursuing full degrees, nearly a quarter of graduate students specifically (23 percent) are engaged in a certificate or licensure program. (Among undergraduates that's 16 percent). The researchers recommended to institutions that a "cost-effective strategy" for serving that segment of the student population is "to package three to five existing programs into a certificate" offering specific job knowledge or skills.

Preferred programs of study

Preferred programs of study (Source: 2019 Online College Students Report from Learning House)

The largest level of interest was in business studies, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level (26 percent and 30 percent of students designated that as their majors, respectively). On the undergrad side, computers and information technology vied with arts and humanities as the second most popular programs (15 percent apiece). Arts and humanities saw the greatest surge in interest, growing from 9 percent of students in 2014 to its current level at 15 percent.

Among graduate students, 19 percent of students have chosen computers and IT, while 11 percent have picked studies in health and medicine, education and teaching, or the broad category of STEM. The largest boost in interest took place in computers and IT, growing from 9 percent in 2014 to 19 percent in 2019.

The researchers pointed out that men were about three times more likely than women to choose a STEM field or computers and IT program. More men participated in the 2019 survey than in previous years, which could have led to the increased interest in those fields, they said. Women were about three times more likely than men to choose health and medical fields, areas that declined in the current results.

How mobile devices have been used in online learning activities

How mobile devices have been used in online learning activities (Source: 2019 Online College Students Report from Learning House)

As the survey found last year, most respondents have used or want to use mobile devices to access their learning. Researchers found that 56 percent of online college students used a smartphone or tablet to do at least some of their online class activities. The younger the student, the more likely that was true. While 59 percent of those 26 to 45 years old said they've completed some online course tasks using a phone or tablet, the same was true among just 27 percent of those 46 and older.

Most current and past online students (68 percent) said they'd use mobile devices for checking grades, due dates or course schedules. However, among perspective students, the percentage was even higher — 74 percent. Among that group of survey participants, a large proportion said they'd use their mobile devices to communicate with professors (55 percent) or other students (50 percent), compared to 35 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of current and past students.

Another 17 percent of students who were currently enrolled or already out of school said they "would have liked the option to complete activities using a mobile device." The researchers advised schools that don't use mobile-friendly learning management systems or mobile-friendly websites to "modernize their systems soon."

The survey also queried students and recent grads about how much their programs taught specific soft skills valued by employers and whether their skills in those areas improved as a result of their online learning. Critical thinking topped the list as the skill taught most often during online instruction, cited by 63 percent of students. Roughly half also reported improving their writing skills, time management and attention to detail.

Most of the students agreed that their program improved their attention to detail, time management and critical thinking skills (mentioned by 85 percent). An additional 79 percent said their writing skills improved. And a majority of students said they came out with improved skills in teamwork (69 percent) and oral communication (62 percent).

The report's advice in this area: Even when online programs don't teach specific soft skills "overtly," instructors can still help their students acquire those skills by designing courses with lessons that promote their use and by figuring out why employers value those skills and sharing that information with students. "This knowledge," the report explained, "could empower students who are seeking their first professional job, a career change or a promotion."

A new area of inquiry in this year's survey focused on student support services offered by the schools. Among prospective students, the top three choices were money management help (designated by 56 percent of participants), study skills development (51 percent) and time management (46 percent). Among those already involved in online courses, 40 percent of students said they've tapped into their school's study skill development; 34 percent said they've used time management assistant; and 29 percent said they've used money management help. The report noted that first-generation students were "significantly more likely" to use each of those services — 10 percent more likely than other students (with the exception of study skills development).

"With an increase in savvier and more diverse online students, it's no longer enough for colleges to offer flexible and convenient online programs," said Carol Aslanian, co-author of the report and founder of Aslanian Market Research, in a statement. "Institutions need to offer affordable and targeted programs with ROI-oriented outcomes, in the right modality, and with the necessary support services to create a welcoming community that supports all types of learners — of any age — to achieve their career ambitions."

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

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