College campuses are full of students and parents with cars packed with dorm supplies and books. But, online education has grown increasingly popular–both as a way to save money and to fit school into a student’s already busy schedule. As college administrators gear up for the school year, and start planning for the next one, it’s important to consider the school’s online offerings. If administrators want to compete in the online education market, they need to make sure their school’s offerings match what students actually want.

Learning House, an eLearning services company that creates off-the-shelf and custom online degree and professional development courses, recently released a new report highlighting the demands and preferences of online college students.

Who is the Online College Student?

In years past, the online student was expected to be a nontraditional student–one who was perhaps already in the midst of a career, with a family to take care of. However, Learning House’s report found that the average age of online students is decreasing, as the percentage of online students ages 18 to 24 doubled since 2012. Online college students also are more likely to be single and childless, with an increase of 10 percent since 2013.

Most online learners have been to college before. Eighty percent of online undergraduate students are coming to colleges and universities with college credits to their name and are hoping that most or all will be accepted.

What Do They Want?

Online college students are cost conscious, which is no surprise given skyrocketing tuition costs for in-person college courses. The report found that cost is the most important factor in deciding which institution to attend.

Students are also likely to be busy with other projects and pursuits, and they don’t want to waste time on a lengthy application process. Sixty-eight percent of online learners choose a school to apply to in just four weeks or less, and, on average, considered only three schools. Twenty percent of respondents considered only one school during the selection process.

Hybrid is the name of the game for online learners. More than half of learners choose institutions within 50 miles of their home. Moreover, approximately 75 percent of online learners report they would visit campus at least once a year.

What do Schools Need to Do to Keep Enrollment High?

Administrators can take both small and large steps to ensure they have a strong, well-populated online education program. While cost is key for many online college students, they don’t expect colleges to heavily discount courses to win them over. The report found that even small efforts to reduce tuition cost are worthwhile. Almost 90 percent of students would be at least somewhat swayed to choose one school over another for as little as a $500 annual scholarship.

Students expect the admissions and enrollment process to be quick and streamlined. Administrators need to make sure the admissions process is as easy and intuitive as possible. This includes making sure forms are simple to fill out and that all offices in the university are working together. Given that this is an online process, it requires investment in IT infrastructure–on the plus side, a streamlined application process will benefit both online and traditional learners. Universities should consider enlisting the help of an IT consultant or solutions provider to design and implement the necessary software and technology.

Administrators should consider developing hybrid courses, giving students the opportunity to come to campus occasionally–perhaps once or twice a semester. This would give students a chance to meet their professors and fellow students while still maintaining the convenience of online learning.

Administrators also should consider streamlining the credit transfer process and giving credit for life experience. Online learners may have military experience or other on-the-job skill development and would like to see what they’ve learned in the real world transfer to the classroom. The report found that many would like to receive credit for their life experiences, which would help them to finish their degree more quickly and for less cost.

To download the full report, click here. To view the infographic, click here.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.