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Affordability and Major Availability Drive Online Ed Decisions

Pre-pandemic, a slim majority of students considered affordability the most compelling driver for choosing their online school. According to a survey by Wiley Education Services, 51 percent of students said cost was the big factor. However, quality still matters: Two-thirds of students (64 percent) said they'd be willing to pay more in tuition if they felt they were gaining something notable. And that suggests that as colleges and universities sort out their instruction for the fall, which, in many cases will rely on virtual education, they'd better have something up their sleeves to ensure that students find the experience worthwhile.

The survey was given to 1,618 respondents, all of whom were 18 or older and actively or previously enrolled in a fully online degree, certificate or licensing program, or planning to attend one. Wiley Education is part of John Wiley and Sons; the company worked with Aslanian Market Research, a division of EducationDynamics. This is the ninth year the company has run its online college students report. According to the researchers, although the survey was done in early 2020, prior to campus closures, the results can provide guidance in helping schools "better understand and adapt online programs in lockstep with changing student behaviors."

Students rated the most important factors in their decisions about the school they chose for enrolling in an online program.

Students rated the most important factors in their decisions about the school they chose for enrolling in an online program. Source: "Online College Students 2020: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences" from Wiley Education Services

Although affordability rated high (58 percent of respondents used employer tuition reimbursement), so did the availability of the specific subject a student wanted to study. Almost six in 10 (59 percent) said that was more important to them than the format (online versus on-campus, mentioned by 25 percent) or the particular school (16 percent). If the given program wasn't available in an online format, more than half of students (52 percent) said they'd look elsewhere. Smaller numbers would take the on-campus version of the program (29 percent) or enroll in a different program at the same school (19 percent).

A little over three-quarters of students (78 percent) said they consider their program worth the cost. And although these programs they're taking are online, three-quarters of students chose schools within 50 miles of where they live. That allows them to promote their credentials to local employers, a report on the results noted, while also enabling a small share of students (9 to 10 percent) to participate in campus activities.

Classroom credit for previous study surfaced as an important issue among online students. Just 13 percent said they had earned no undergraduate credits. Forty-three percent said they'd earned 60 or more credits. The researchers' advice: to streamline the transfer credit process "as much as possible" for undergraduates and to make sure that staff interacting with potential students know the transfer credits policies inside and out, including how long a credit assessment will take.

Career advancement was the big reason for undertaking online study in the first place, mentioned by 90 percent of respondents, whether to shift careers to earn more money (25 percent), start a new career better aligned with interests (24 percent) or for other career objectives. So, it should be no surprise that more than half of students (56 percent) reported that they used résumé creation services provided by the career center at their chosen institution, and 52 percent worked with a career adviser.

"There is little doubt that online learning will be meeting the needs of increasing numbers of college students of all ages as they attempt to cope with dramatic life changes in the months and years ahead," said Carol Aslanian, president of Aslanian, in a statement. "More and more students will be seeking convenient, efficient, readily accessible and cost-effective ways to gain the skills needed in an evolving work environment."

"The radical shift to virtual learning during COVID-19, made possible by the heroic efforts of faculty, was critical to helping students continue their education, but should not be considered a true or sustainable online learning solution," added Todd Zipper, president of Wiley Education Services. "The most successful online programs are carefully crafted by faculty and course designers who follow best practices for organizing courses, presenting content, empowering faculty and leveraging technology to encourage active engagement. As all colleges are planning for a very different fall semester and beyond, the Online College Students report helps chart a path forward."

The report, which covers many additional topics, is available with registration through the Wiley Education Services 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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