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What Geography Says About Online College Students, The Future Of Studying Online

Students look over a map at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Tuesday, June 30, 2015. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded in 1861, is traditionally known for its research and education in the physical sciences and engineering, and more recently in biology, economics, linguistics, and management as well. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

In higher education, online education options increase access to institutions, programs and classes.  As true as that is, it’s important to be clear about what that enhanced access really means and what it may say about the future of online education.

While online students can theoretically study anywhere, for example, they largely do not.

In May, The Learning House, an academic program manager offering solutions and  services for colleges and universities, released their Online College Students 2018 report in collaboration with Aslanian Market Research. It shows that most undergraduate students studying online or considering doing so, study quite close to home.

According to the report, fully two-thirds of online undergrads were taking online classes less than 50 miles from a campus of the school where they enrolled. Nearly half (45% overall) studied online within 25 miles of campus. More than three in four (78%) online students enrolled at a school with a campus within 100 miles.

Just 8% of all online undergrad college students in the country are taking classes more than 250 miles from their campus.

“It’s an important point to understand,” said Learning House CEO Todd Zipper. “Many people may think of online programs as amorphous, everywhere things but they are actually closely connected to the schools and the campuses – both in the minds of students and in reality.”

The report theorizes that online students cluster near their community institutions because it, “may be that students and their employers are familiar with and value these schools.” That’s possible.

It’s also likely that online students study close to campus because they need or value the physical resources available there. According to the report, “Seventy-six percent [of online students] visit their campus at least once a year, and 45% do so three or more times per year.” The most common reason they do so, the report says, is to meet face-to-face with a teacher (40%). Twenty-nine percent of online students said they went to campus to use a library or lab or to meet with a study group.

If students are not picking online programs to be a student anywhere, the Online College Student report suggests online students do like the ability to be a student any time.

When asked what “specific features” of online programs were most important to their decision making, six of the top seven answers were about ease and pace of study. Among those most important features were advantages such as year-round courses, self-paced courses, accelerated courses and frequent start dates. Tuition and fees were the top scoring exception to convenience.

For students who may work full-time, for example, as the report found more than half (54%) of online students do, those flexibilities are likely to be essential to whether they can go to school at all. Indeed, the report found that 24% of online students said they definitely or probably would not take in-person classes if online alternatives were not available.

Those twin realities – that online students are staying close to home and using face-to-face campus resources while also seeking scheduling and pacing flexibility –  have big implications for the future of online learning.

Understanding that online students use on-campus facilities may undercut the idea that online programs will find their promised low-cost waterline. Anticipated cost savings from not having to provide physical spaces, resources and services for online students may need reevaluation. Schools can’t, for example, build an online program and keep the same staffing levels at the library.

It also means that the competitive pressures of Local U battling for an online student with Far-off State aren’t real. Accordingly, hopes that school vs school competition was going to increase quality and lower tuition prices of online programs, may be well premature.

But that’s also means that Local U doesn’t have to compete with big-brand schools for online students. Their real competition isn’t another school, it’s the careers, families and busy lives of people already in their communities – and that’s a fight they can win if they choose to fight it.

“There is and will be competition for online students,” Zipper said. “If a local school does not offer the flexible, quality online options a student needs, they will look for those elsewhere. But the strong pull of online students to want local, on-campus resources means that local schools can keep their students and even expand their enrollments with good, flexible online programs.”

If that happens, if local schools can focus on flexibility with their online offerings, they may not only survive the online education phenomenon, they may thrive in it.


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