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Higher education trends in online student demographics

Back in 2019, higher education trends were already positive towards the future of online education expecting global market growth of $350 billion by 2025. This weighty forecast was well before the events of 2020 spurned the move online even more significantly. And digital education only continues to gain more traction.

Numerous education trends reports point to a new preferred change of learning mode, with more students opting for online courses over traditional face to face learning. Learners are leaning into the benefits of online learning flexibility, the wider choice of options available, and the ability to exert more control over the shape of their education paths. 

The shift in preference was always there before, but the impact of 2020, as stated in such reports, has rapidly escalated the adoption of online learning. Online education is proving to be just as effective as physical classroom-based learning in terms of coverage and delivery. 

Moreover, the educational model is proving more appealing as schedule and workload flexibility are guaranteed with asynchronous content. These considerations explain the importance of migration to online learning showed in education trends. Universities and colleges have an opportunity to not only respond to the changing needs of their learners by designing exceptional online learning experiences but also to expand their market reach due to the flexible nature of remote learning. 

Top takeaway: online learning is here to stay. 

Higher education trends

So, what do students look at when choosing their intended courses and the institutions to pursue them in? 

According to a Best College report, most students largely rely on the information provided on college websites when choosing the best educational provider for their learning needs.

  • 31% of online students get the information on choosing their colleges from the websites
  • 21% rely on suggestions and reviews from other students

(Best College 2020) 

In addition to this, the education trends report show that students are looking for options that support their education intentions while balancing important life commitments, including work, family, academics, and other obligations. 

Top takeaway: external commitments and educational needs hold equal importance in course decision making. 

online student demographics

What are some demographic differences between men and women embracing online learning? 

According to the report, areas of major, level of study, employment and income, age, ethnic background and marital status are the major issues factoring in to influence the trends for either gender. Let’s take a look at how each of the factors above shape the demographics education trends around online learning. 

Most online students opt to major in the following courses.

  • 20% of them major in Computer and Information sciences and related majors
  • 20% major in business-related courses
  • Profession related majors accrue 14% of students
  • Education and Engineering related majors make up 18% of students 

(Best College 2020) 

Different majors are preferred by either gender. The education trends data suggest that courses that rely more on contact learning are getting fewer enrolments in online platforms. Income levels also factor in deciding which courses are pursued by an individual. Students are also adopting different measures to deal with the emerging concerns that cloud online learning. 

Male student demographic

What are the challenges involved for learners when it comes to online learning?

Most students cite financial constraints as the major road blocking factor that stands in the way of successful completion of an online course. 

According to the Best college report, 76% of men cited financial difficulties as a major challenge, while 66% of women cited the same. Other factors that prove a hurdle in obtaining online graduation are difficulty to schedule on-campus visits, inability to maintain minimum GPA, inability to maintain the desired GPA, staying on track with classes, access to required technology and internet, and an inability to manage unexpected events in one’s life. Financial concerns and work-life balance proving the lead obstacles for most students. 

The education trends report also suggests women are more likely to face challenges as online students as compared to men. 76% of the survey respondents agreed that there are more challenges for women learning online. While only 7% felt that men are more exposed to difficulties learning online. 

Female student demographic

To cope with the inherent difficulties that come with online learning, students have sought various types of support. Students seek support in relation to the following factors:

  • 22% of students seek financial support
  • 19% seek support with family
  • 17% seek support in academics
  • 15% seek support in relation to work (employer or employment)

These findings highlight that students still require strong support mechanisms when studying: whether online or offline. Institutions moving online should prioritise factoring in appropriate resources related to financial and wellbeing support as part of program design.  

Top takeaway: it is critical to embed learner support in online learning course design.

What do the students consider a satisfactory learning process? 

The report indicates that a flexible schedule is key to ensuring a learner’s satisfaction. A great number of students also wish the colleges were a little more supportive in the essence of skills and development. Students needed help with time management, technological skills and developing self-confidence. From the report, it appears that if an institution was to run a satisfactory program for the students, then each of the above factors need to be considered.

The biggest gender difference between men and women learning online was in how they needed support with computer literacy. While only 7% of women needed support with computer literacy, 41% of men needed that kind of help. 

Moving forward, an open feedback dialogue between institutions and students working together could see a resolution to some of the major challenges that online learners face. Conducting a learner needs analysis as part of the enrolment process is a great first step. By listening to learners’ concerns and roadblocks, universities and colleges would be better placed to understand the current education trends and the changing needs of their learners, and design online experiences with appropriate levels of facilitation to address those needs. 

Hearing students demographic


Venable, Ph.D, M., 2021. Trends in Online Student Demographics. Best Colleges.