College students again give thumbs up to online learning

More than 70% say remote was as good if not better than in-person instruction, according to an annual study done by, which offers tips to keep it going strong.

The remote learning experience at higher education institutions might not be perfect, but it is perceived as quite strong by students.

More than 70% of students surveyed in the seventh-annual Online Education Trends Report done by note that online learning was on par with or better than face-to-face instruction. And more than 90% believe it provides a good return on investment and would recommend it to others.

That coincides with another study released by Sykes Enterprises in February that showed 84% of students saying remote learning environments were effective.

The BestColleges survey was conducted in late 2020 and involved two separate groups – 1,800 students including 500 who were remote learners and 366 administrators. Most of them agreed that online instruction is here to stay in some form because of positive experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic and even as institutions reopen their campuses.

For many of the students polled, they indicated their biggest challenge was not “actual costs” or “applying for financial aid” as in previous years, but finding the right program and the right institution to fit their needs.

“This may be a result of several factors, such as the growing number of online programs available, demand for something that isn’t available, or difficulty locating needed information,” said Melissa Venable, Ph.D., the report’s author and online education advisor for who is an adjunct faculty member and course designer at Saint Leo University and the University of South Florida. “With a growing number of online programs to choose from, the college selection process can be overwhelming for students, who don’t always have all the information they need to make the best decisions.”

Colleges and universities continue to adjust offerings – a third of administrators say they plan to continue online learning – as students crave more remote and flexible options (49% plan to enroll in online courses after the pandemic).

Impacted by a rough 2020, students will need to know that institutions can help lead them on paths to careers and provide the supports needed to help them achieve their goals.

What has driven them to look online? The pandemic (37%) and convenience. Half of them say they are career-driven … and a quarter of them say it will be harder to find a job after they graduate. The majority of those who enroll online have jobs and take care of children (65%).

“While the positive responses among students and administrators is encouraging, the impact of COVID-19-related changes on college students’ lives may have multiple long-term effects,” Venable said. “Our findings suggest that while remote students may be more open to enroll in an online course, they have heightened concerns about their health and wellness, as well as their future employability.”

Inside the data

Financial aid and knowing actual costs are two of the concerns listed by students. When they are searching for programs, they are turning most often to these sources: institution websites, student reviews, and increasingly social media to ensure they are getting the best return on investment. And yes, almost all of them say college education is a good way to increase their career and income potential.

The fields that remain hot include computer science, healthcare and business.

Administrators surveyed say their institutions are cognizant of online learning and meeting student needs, offering faculty development (96%), technology infrastructure and support (95%) and student academic services (94%). There does appear from the data to be a bit of a divide, however, when it comes to the perception of financial assistance. Those online graduates who took part in the survey said looking back, they wish they’d researched cost more closely.

There were some interesting statistics from the administrator pool in the report:

  • 12% say they don’t need to be present on campus to do their work
  • Nearly half say there needs to be further “investment in instructional design-related processes and resources.”
  • Nearly two-thirds say institution finances are the biggest challenge this year
  • More than 80% say online course need will increase in the next few years

That said, the online experience is being delivered well. More students this year indicated it was better than in the previous report. And only 5% said the quality was poor.


At the end of the report, authors noted several areas that might help further the embrace of online learning. They said students should be at the heart of any decisions being made on remote learning:

  1. Be flexible. Providing options including online learning to students will give students a much better chance for success than being rigid. Offer supports to them and understand they might be working or providing care to others and need schedules that can be adaptable.
  2. Ask for student input. An institution might think they understand and know the needs of their populations but if they don’t ask through surveys or give them representation at decision-making tables, it might truly be difficult to know.
  3. Be open and transparent with data and access across multiple platforms. Give students information they need to make decisions in easy-to-navigate ways. Help them understand costs, financial assistance possiblities and supports available, as well as where they can go if they have questions.
  4. Embrace technology. Students expect to have the right tools to help them in their remote learning experiences. Consider “more extensive use of synchronous online tools, such as Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, and Webex.”
  5. Weigh costs. Now is the time to start planning strategically with online and remote components in mind. If they truly are a part of the future, it is imperative to know costs and the how the institution will respond to embracing technology, support and financial assistance.
  6. Don’t deny online is happening. Student experiences have largely been positive, despite a massive shift in learning and a pandemic forcing institutions to develop new methods on the fly. And they want more. Now is the time to explore how much value the institution might gain in furthering remote learning.
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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