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Online College Programs Aren’t Serving Who Or Where We Think

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

Education Dynamics recently released their annual report for 2023 on what’s going on in online college education – Online College Students Report, 2023.

In a few ways, the new report allows us to observe whether online college programs are delivering on some of the promises so many thought they would. Based on the new data, there is reason to be skeptical.

The big take-away for me is on geography – the where of online college. It’s dramatically important and routinely overlooked as the indicator it is – a weathervane for the billion-dollar enterprise on which so many schools have invested so much.

But before the geography, the demographics in the report that are highly worthy of surfacing, sharing and understanding.

A student stands at East Los Angeles College under a tree looking at his phone.
Los Angeles, CA – September 27: A student stands at East Los Angeles College on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. Many students this year are choosing to stick with online classes despite California community college campuses being fully open. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

One of the hopeful promises of online learning at the college level was that it could and would expand access to higher education. By being online and universally available, many people who otherwise could not access educational opportunities would. Woven into that promise was that many of those with new access would be from communities that have been traditionally under-served – those with jobs, family obligations, minorities, first-generation college attendees. Online programs would be the on-ramp for the passed over. Many people inferred and believed that online access would help ‘democratize’ what has historically been available only to majority communities with the means to pay for it.

But based on the new report, that’s not happening.

Quoting the report’s summary, “Undergraduate online college students are most often single, white women between 19-23 years of age who are not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin and have no children living at home. About half are employed full time … with a median household income of $51,250. They are not the first in their family to enroll in college and about half live in suburban areas throughout the country.”

The report says 70% of online undergraduate students are white. Overall, among all undergraduate students at all colleges, about 55% are white. And while $51,250 a year isn’t rich, for a single, childless 20-something living in the suburbs, it’s not poor either. More than a third of online college students (37%) make more than $70,000 a year.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with expanding educational opportunities to reasonably affluent, young, suburban, working white women. Nothing. But we should know that’s who online college programs are primarily serving.

Back in 2018, I wrote about the geography data showing that “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.”

This year, the survey did not ask the question the same way, though it’s clear the trend of proximity to campus has not dissipated. According to the new report, 82% of current online college students are enrolled at a college in their state of residence. Considering that in some parts of the country there is no real difference between New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, for example, the 82% finding is remarkable. Considering too that some of the online warehouse clubs of college – the Arizona States and Southern New Hampshires and Grand Canyons – are recruiting and churning an incredible number of students from all over the country, the 82% figure is an eye catcher.

The report continues that, “a vast majority of the students, both undergraduate (83%) and graduate (85%), indicated that proximity to an institution was a determining factor” in their educational decisions. Only 15% of prospective online students said they had “no preference” for a school’s location.

And more, the report says that one-third of potential students in online programs (32%) would consider an online program only if the physical school was less than 30 minutes driving time from their homes. Nearly another third (31%) limited the drive time to one hour, meaning that about two-thirds of those looking for online college options won’t consider a school that’s located more than an hour away.

Even online, students strongly prefer schools they know and can access in person.

This is important to understand for a few reasons.

One is that for every school with an online program, the realistic recruiting and enrollment footprint is pretty small and probably shrinking. Well, not every program. The big brand-name schools recruit from anywhere they want. But for everyone else, it’s clear that geography is a strong limitation. This reality also means that if schools are counting on online programs to boost their enrollments from outside their immediate geographic reach, that isn’t likely to happen. State or regional or local schools are state or regional or local schools, even online.

Another implication of the homeward geographic pull in online programs is that even the schools with heavy online investments should be considering boosting their on-campus resources and services. They clearly matter to online students. The data also suggest that online students place some value, perhaps significant value, on being able to attend a school they can see and touch – a name they know.

But most important, the strong influence of physical proximity in online programs is another divergence from what we expected from nearly universal online college options. Most of us expected a global marketplace of competition and opportunity where students who could go to any college anywhere, actually would.

We were promised that universal online competition would increase diversity offerings and quality while lowering price. We expected that online college options would let every college reach any student in any corner of the planet. I remember reading about how online college would allow people to go to Harvard while living in caves in Afghanistan. People actually wrote that.

But if the reality is that 80-plus percent of online students are staying home, none of that is going to happen. It’s not happening.

There may not be anything inherently wrong with the way the online college ecosystem is running right now. There’s nothing wrong with primarily serving majority populations with means or serving primarily local students who can drive to campus in less than an hour.

At the same time, maybe we should slow down in telling ourselves that online learning is the great democratizer of education, how it’s affording opportunity to those without it, how it’s sparking a global marketplace of innovation and improvement. Based on the data, it’s not. At least not yet.

Originally posted on Forbes on March 25, 2023.