In the not-so-distant past, the relatively small number of people who took online classes in the U.S. saw at-your-own-pace learning as a good alternative to traditional, in-person classes. Adults with careers and children often took advantage of online classes and degrees due to the convenience the classes afforded them to learn anywhere, anytime. In the minds of many people, online degree programs were largely associated with for-profit institutions, even though many nonprofit institutions offered individual online courses.
Today, what was once a niche educational medium has become part of the mainstream. For instance, 60 percent of post secondary institutions report online offerings. And the proportion of higher education students currently taking at least one online course is at an all-time high of 34 percent, or an estimated 7 million students—with online enrollment growing more than five times faster than total enrollment. More than 3 million students—15 percent of all higher education students—are currently learning primarily through online courses—defined as studying in a program that is at least 80 percent online. That figure is up from 6 percent nearly a decade ago.
In addition, online education is associated with a wide range of educational institutions, including some of the most prestigious nonprofit universities in the country. What had at one point involved a trade-off of quality for convenience has begun to achieve a level of quality in terms of reputation and teaching that requires fewer compromises.
Now, a BCG survey of more than 2,500 students and 675 parents in the U.S. con-firms these trends and adds rich, new insights—for example, exploring the student experience with blended courses (which combine online and in-class instruction) and uncovering detailed student needs and segments. (The survey is part of BCG’s larger Global Consumer Sentiment series. See The Resilient Consumer: Where to Find Growth amid the Gloom in Developed Economies, BCG Focus, October 2013.)
Consistent with the estimates above, the results of the BCG U.S. Education Sentiment Survey indicate that the proportion of students currently taking at least one online course stands at 30 percent of postsecondary students. We further estimate from the survey results that 16 percent of postsecondary students are currently learning primarily through online courses.
Furthermore, BCG’s research has identified universal attitudes about online education among students and parents. For example, our survey shows that students across all demographics and backgrounds now want to mix online only, blended, and traditional classroom courses to create a learning experience that combines virtual and traditional settings. In fact, our survey suggests that more than 25 percent of students are currently taking at least one blended course. We have also found that students desire a much greater level of interactivity than current learning environments often provide.
However, our research has also found that different groups of students have widely varying expectations of—and needs for—their future learning experience. These similarities and differences point to important lessons for leaders anticipating and shaping the future of online education. Institutions that fail to prepare for these shifts and respond to the dramatically increased competition among online offerings risk losing relevance and overall market share. Those that adapt will discover huge untapped opportunities for growth, new platforms for innovation, and the potential to transform how future generations of students learn.