Meet the 3 distinct student populations in the online market

Expert Insight

Meet the 3 distinct student populations in the online market

As higher education institutions across North America feel financial pressure from declining or stagnating enrollment they often look to online education as a way to tap into new markets or accommodate a more non-traditional population. However, when it comes to launching these online programs, institutions often perceive modality to be the key differentiating factor in recruitment efforts.

In reality, we must acknowledge that online and hybrid education is not a strategy in and of itself. As in the case of traditional education, online students are not a homogenous group. To remain competitive institutions need to tailor their offerings to the specific student population they hope to serve.

Three core student populations, each with their own goals, preferences, and needs, benefit most from online and hybrid offerings and institutional leaders must create distinct strategies in order to serve them effectively.

Three Types of Online Students

1. Multimodal undergraduates

Demanding greater flexibility in the undergraduate curriculum

Traditional-aged bachelor’s degree-seeking students can better balance campus involvement, experiential learning opportunities, and part-time work without sacrificing degree progress when high-demand courses are available in multiple modalities. Our analysis of IPEDS data shows that since 2012 students in traditional face-to-face programs taking at least one distance course has increased by 39%, which points to a shift in student preferences for increasingly flexible learning opportunities.

2. Graduate and professional students

Investing in career development and fulfillment

Students seeking professional master’s degrees or certificates are often looking for flexible, online programs with a clear link to their career goals. Given higher price points and growing demand in many fields, this segment has traditionally been the most lucrative for colleges and universities. However, this market is no longer the revenue-generating panacea we once believed it to be. As the market has grown, degree conferrals have flattened and student demands and preferences have evolved to include new short-format post-baccalaureate credentials. In order to remain competitive, institutions need to create market-responsive program launch and approval policies and invest in self-service student support services to better serve this segment.

3. Adult degree completers

Looking for fast, flexible, and career-relevant degree programs

As nontraditional students continue to become a more prominent student population, there is significant hype about a seemingly large market catering to adult students with some college credit but no degree. Data suggests that there are about 31 million students with some prior college experience. However, further segmentation shows that not all students within this category are equally likely to reenroll. Many had too few college credits to be considered viable. In fact, National Student Clearinghouse analysis found that only 4 million students had the necessary qualities—that is, multiple terms of enrollment and at least two years of degree progress. Without understanding the actual size of the market and recognizing their need for low-cost and flexible programs, institutions will be unable to effectively recruit and serve adult degree completers.


Hear our experts live on this topic

As you expand and refine your online education offerings, join us for our webconference series, Online Education Strategy Roadmap, where we will outline the key pedagogical, enrollment, technological and student support service strategies institutions should consider when serving each of these distinct student markets.


Design programs that align with the needs of today’s online students

Creating programs that cater to local and regional training needs will help online students succeed in the workforce. Download our program launch and implementation template to quantify the economic impact of new—and existing—programs.

Download the Proposal Template

EAB asks you to accept cookies for authorization purposes, as well as to track usage data and for marketing purposes. To get more information about these cookies and the processing of your personal information, please see our Privacy Policy. Do you accept these cookies and the processing of your personal information involved?