Currently, online programs enroll about 15% of U.S. higher education students. An annual survey from online program manager Learning House and Aslanian Market Research breaks down that population.

More than half (53%) of college students enrolled online are doing so to change careers, while 18% are preparing for their first professional job. 

The large majority (84%) of current and past students said their online programs were worth the cost, and 81% of online students said they felt confident they would graduate with the knowledge and skills needed in the job market. Nearly half (47%) of current students said they’d like to return to their alma mater to take additional courses.

From 2014 to 2019, the share of undergraduates indicating their online courses were “better” than in-person classes fell from 50% to 39%, while the percentage who indicated they were “about the same” rose from 41% to 50%. More graduate students (52%) ranked online courses as better than in-person classes in 2019 than did in 2014 (43%). 

The annual survey sheds light on which students are going to college online and what their needs are. Millennials account for about half of college enrollment online, Generation X is about one-third, and Gen Z and baby boomers make up the rest, according to the report. 

The report notes that students’ “need for convenience is growing.” About half of undergraduates (51%) and two-thirds of graduate students (70%) enrolled online are also employed full-time. Additionally, 41% of online students are parents. 

Several factors drive online students’ college choices. Undergraduate and graduate students alike selected affordability as the top factor in what institution they selected. Other important reasons included program reputation, how quickly they could earn a degree and whether they could also take in-person classes. 

Online programs also may want to recruit locally, as students studying online more often choose colleges near their homes. In 2019, two-thirds of online college students (67%) were enrolled in an institution within 50 miles of their home, compared to 44% who did the same in 2012. 

In some ways, online students indicated they had similar needs to those enrolled in brick and mortar programs. Surveyed students said they benefited from career and support services, something online programs increasingly realize they must provide. 

Tom Schuman is the senior vice president of communications & operations for the Indiana Chamber. He is also the editor of the Chamber’s award-winning BizVoice magazine and has been with the organization for 21 years.