More than 40% of today’s online students are previous college stop-outs: report

The prospect of alternative credentials is exciting students so much that 83% still expressed interest in them even if they aren't covered by financial aid.

A new report exploring the makeup of today’s online students has found that a considerable chunk is first-generation, previous stop-outs or a combination of both.

“Voice of The Online Learner” found that half of today’s online learners had previously stopped out of a college-level degree or certificate program (42%) and one-third are first-generation students. Moreover, 44% of those stop-out students are first-generation. The report is Wiley’s 12th annual report based on 2,600 student responses recorded this spring, offering the most up-to-date preferences of today’s digital-first learners.

“At its core, education is such an opportunity for expanding your place in the world, and online learning, in particular, is a way to really improve access to that,” says David Capranos, director of marketing strategy and research at Wiley. “For a lot of people, this is the only way they’re going to be able to get an education … for a lot of folks this is the only way they’re going to get their master’s degree.”

The significant portion of first-generation online learners might explain why students overall reported difficulty paying (31%), gathering transcripts (25%) and completing financial aid forms (22%). Wiley advises that colleges and universities should streamline the administrative tasks for enrollment to relieve student stress and allow them to hit the ground running.

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What factors drive online students to consider your school?

Students want to know first about cost and duration when they’re searching for the right online program. In tandem with a May report that found 59% of online students are full-time workers, the data suggests that online learners are time-poor, working-class students looking to upskill in the most affordable and efficient way possible.

Efficiency is particularly important to today’s online learners. For example, 71% prefer asynchronous learning, and 63% want the option to take more than one course at a time. In comparison, only 19% of learners prefer 16-week courses with one, two, or three classes at a time.

Additionally, two-thirds of students were interested in pursuing alternative credentials instead of a degree program if it means greater employment prospects. Specifically, 47% were very or extremely interested in certificates to gain a new skill for their career (47%). They were not, however, interested in a certificate that could build toward being admitted into an online program.

The prospect of alternative credentials is exciting students so much that 83% still expressed interest in them even if they aren’t covered by financial aid. This is especially interesting considering that affordability was the most-cited factor influencing whether a student would look into a program (77%) and 61% reported receiving financial assistance once enrolled. And compared to five years ago, 10% more students now say they need to be offered at least a $1,000 scholarship to influence their decision to enroll in one college over another.

Ultimately, online learning attracts a hungry cohort of students who are returning to higher ed since stopping out or would be the first time in their family to attend. Thus, these achievement-oriented learners are interested in flexible schedules and alternative credentials if it means saving time and money and boosting career prospects. All of these components also point to serving adult learners, whom Capranos believes are quickly becoming an essential piece of higher education.

“You’ve got the demographic cliff coming and the return on investment of degrees under attack,” says Capranos. “I think that the adult learner population is going to be really critical to the financial success of an institution.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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