Most online students complete at least some coursework on a mobile device, prefer access to a nearby campus and decide very quickly where to enroll, according to a recent survey, which highlights the changing demographic of the typical online learner as younger and more likely to be single than in the past.
Those and other findings are revealed in "Online College Students," a July report by Aslanian Market Research and the Learning House, a company that helps colleges and universities develop quality online degree programs. In its fifth year, the annual report surveyed about 1,500 prospective, current and recently graduated online learners, both undergraduate and graduate.
In the study, 59 percent of survey respondents said they used a mobile device for at least some online classwork -- a data point that wasn't included in past reports -- and 67 percent of prospective online students indicated they wish to do the same.
This finding isn't very surprising to Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, who's seen the trend among the school's students.
"We have witnessed a significant increase, for our online students, in the number of students who are utilizing mobile devices to review lectures, materials, documents in advance," she says.
Likewise, about half of respondents said they used mobile devices to conduct at least some research about where to apply.
"There's a substantial number of students, a high percentage I thought, that were using mobile devices" for both reasons, says study co-author Dave Clinefelter, chief academic officer at the Learning House.
This prevalence of mobile usage shouldn't come as too much of a surprise as online students continue getting younger -- a trend that's been observed in the past few years, the study's co-authors say. The average age dropped to 29 for online undergrads and to 33 for online grad students, according to the report -- down from 34 and 35 in 2012, respectively.
Compared with past findings, today's online learners -- particularly at the undergraduate level -- are also more likely to be single, have fewer children and earn lower salaries, according to the survey.
"Online education is not age-related as we once thought," says Carol Aslanian, president and founder of Aslanian Market Research and a co-author of the study. "Students of any age are turning to online education because it offers the flexibility, convenience and acceleration they need to gain their credentials as fast as they can."
Compared with traditional students, prospective online students tend to decide on a program rather quickly, the study says. Half consider just two or three different institutions, and 20 percent consider only one.
In addition, 68 percent of online learners submit their applications within four weeks of beginning their search -- up from last year's 40 percent -- and 63 percent start class within four weeks of applying.
"They're mature people. They have to get on with their lives. They're not wasting time," Aslanian says. "They know that a credential is a pathway to a raise, a new job, an advancement in their current job, and they want to get it over with. They are savvy, quick choosers."
Prospective online students aren't just thinking quickly -- they're also thinking locally. Three-quarters of survey respondents selected online programs based within 100 miles of their home, and the same percentage visited their institution's campus at least once during the year, up from the 62 percent who never visited campus in 2014.
[Explore how to decide between online and blended courses.]
Aslanian says this desire for a nearby campus likely results from the access to on-campus resources.
"They like the flexibility of knowing that the campus is nearby in case they need to get to the campus, but for the most part they want all of their services and academic programs available completely online," says Aldridge, of Drexel.
Though proximity to a campus is increasingly important when choosing an online program, the survey found that cost remained the top priority. That may be because 44 percent said they used their own money to finance their online education, and significantly fewer employers offer tuition benefits than in past years -- 42 percent did so in 2016, down from 81 percent in 2012.
Below are some other report highlights:
-- "Alternative credentials," the study says -- particularly digital badges, microdegrees and bootcamps, and competency-based education -- are becoming increasingly common in online education, but only one-third of respondents said they were familiar or very familiar with the concept, with another third saying they had minimal knowledge. Online learners most often cite a lack of information about these credentials as the reason for not considering them.
-- Business remains the No. 1 graduate field of study among both online undergrad and grad students, but graduate computer and information technology-related programs have seen a significant rise in interest, likely due to the growth of the field and the high demand for jobs, the co-authors say. Twenty percent of respondents indicated computers and IT as their field of study, up from 9 percent in 2014. The survey further revealed that fewer students pursue education and teaching online graduate programs, dropping to 14 percent in 2016 from 22 percent in 2014.
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