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Online learners face admissions roadblocks, but are open to to certificate and degree alternatives. Photo: Pixabay

Online learning is a new pathway for stop-outs to get a college degree

According to Wiley’s annual ‘Voice of the Online Learner,’ nearly half (44%) of these returning non-completers identify as first-generation college students.


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The stop-out student population is returning to higher education, and according to Wiley’s annual Voice of the Online Learner, 42% of online learners were previously enrolled in a college-level degree or certificate program they didn’t complete. These learners value the flexibility online learning provides and the ability to rejoin the workforce, fulfill an industry requirement, or pursue their credentials for non-career-related reasons. 

“There are more than 40 million students today with some college credit but no degree,” said Deanna Raineri, Wiley Senior Vice President of University Strategy and Market Innovation, in a statement. “Returning to the classroom after you’ve stopped out can benefit your professional and personal success. Whether adult learners left school willingly or reluctantly, online programs are helping them find their way back.”

But the pandemic taught this modality (online learning), something many had not considered, with 59% of respondents enrolled between 2020 and 2023 not likely to change to a campus-based program over time. 

Although 18% are likely to change to a campus-based program in the future—of those interested in transferring, the main reason was more interaction with peers, with around a quarter of respondents expressing concerns about expectations, lack of instructor interactions, and instruction quality. 

“Most previously stopped-out learners didn’t leave school for reasons related to the modality, program, or institution,” the data report finds. “Rather, their top motivations included a change in family circumstances (28%), a physical or mental health issue (22%), and running out of funds (21%).”

With community colleges enrollment significantly impacted during the pandemic, these groups of learners, once they return to higher education, are “more likely to be enrolled in an undergraduate program,” the survey reveals, with many choosing to stay local and focus on program completion time. 

What are online learners looking for?

Voice of the Online Learner reveals that 83% of online learners prioritize modality over institution because 57% are more likely to find their program offered online at a different institution, with some learners forgoing learning entirely than enrolling in a campus-based program.

However, first-generation learners are more likely to base their decisions on modality, and the school remains fixed, while their decision on the program is more flexible. 

But despite this, tuition, program completion, and program flexibility are crucial factors for online learners, with 77% of respondents finding affordability the most significant factor, 63% the institution/program’s reputation, and the ability to customize the program to fit their goals (60%). 

55% of learners would choose one school over another for an annual scholarship of $1,000. And this year, 44% would need a scholarship above $1,000. Additionally, one in four current or recently graduated online learners surveyed received scholarships with as low as $500.

The survey highlights online learners need to seek additional benefits “in the form of conveniences, including scheduling, asynchronous courses, or flexible deadlines.” The need for more financial assistance no longer has the same effect as it once did, with many accruing debt despite having savings. 

The data reveals that over half (61%) of current and recently graduated online learners received some form of assistance this year: scholarships (26%), tuition discounts (25%), and free textbooks (20%), with online learners generally relied on their savings (48%) to pay for their education. 

Voice of the Online Learner’ Key findings: 

  • 42% of online learners are previous college “stop-outs” who have returned to higher education 
  • Nearly half (44%) of returning non-completes identify as first-generation college students.
  • 66% of learners are open to pursuing trade skills certificates, industry certifications, and non-credit certificates over degrees
  • 92% of students who graduated within the last year achieved a positive outcome 

The data revealed specific actions that can alleviate online learners’ concerns. To learn how, please click here



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