Over the past decade, many public universities discovered that moving high-quality programs online opened new markets for their institutions and in many cases drove record program enrollment.

Today, even as more than 2,300 degree-granting institutions in the U.S.1 are meeting the demand for online programs, these programs continue to grow in popularity despite an otherwise declining higher education market. Succeeding in this highly competitive landscape requires an investment in the development of programs that meet the specific needs and expectations of working adults—the primary audience for online programs. To attract the non-traditional, working adult student, universities must attune themselves to the fundamental differences, needs and expectations of the online student compared to those of the on-campus students they have traditionally served. The average online student:

  • Is older than their on-campus peers, with more than 80 percent age 25 or older2
  • Works full time while balancing family responsibilities
  • May not have the schedule or flexibility to attend classes on campus

Adult students are also keenly focused on job-specific requirements with nearly 80 percent of online students citing a career-focused reason as the primary motivation for enrolling in their program3.

Research has shown that the online student considers these primary factors when selecting an online program:

  1. Cost
    While cost is a consideration for most students, it ranks as the number one factor non-traditional students consider when selecting an online program4.
  2. Program Duration
    Non-traditional students want to complete their degree as soon as they can. They are learning on their own time – at the kitchen table after a full day of work and after putting kids to bed, for example – and are looking to achieve career-focused results as quickly as possible5.
  3. Admission Requirements
    As most non-traditional students are working adults, often with several years of experience, they seek programs that place a heavier value on their extensive work experience versus just their prior academic accomplishments or test scores.
  4. Multiple Starts
    On-campus students expect to start during the traditional semester schedules of fall, spring and summer. With busy schedules and a desire to progress through a program rapidly, non-traditional students want the ability to start at their convenience and seek programs that offer multiple starts per year6.

Think Fast: The 'Amazonification' of Everything

What makes a consumer choose an Uber over a taxi; a Netflix movie over a trip to the theater; or a product purchase from Amazon over a local retailer? Simply put, time. Today's digitally savvy consumer seeks ways to accomplish more in less time using technology. This behavior also influences the way students choose a university to pursue their online education. In line with the non-traditional student's need for flexible, accelerated courses, a university's success in enrolling qualified online students is influenced by their ability to provide rapid feedback in the admissions process7.

Taking into consideration the online student's expectation of rapid feedback throughout the application and admissions process is critical. Not only does research demonstrate that these students favor universities that respond quickly in the admissions process, these students consider multiple options for their online education, and are more likely to enroll in a program that allows them to begin without delay. Recent findings in the Online College Students Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences Report found that 52 percent of students sought information from three or more schools, an increase from 29 percent in 2016. The survey – which polled 1,500 current, prospective and recently graduated online college students – also found that the number of students considering only one institution fell from 30 percent to 18 percent8.

A Model for Programs That Attract Non-Traditional Students

In our work with more than 50 university partners over the last decade, we have found that when developing high-quality, online programs that appeal to working adults, the following program attributes should be considered:

  • Offering a high-quality, competitively priced program is paramount for universities looking to attract working adults.
  • An asynchronous, accelerated course schedule enables students to learn on their own time and fits the flexibility needs of non-traditional students juggling work, family and education.
  • Multiple start dates offer non-traditional students the ability to begin their program as soon as possible.
  • When setting admission requirements, focus on the needs of working adults and consider which admission criteria are most critical to predicting academic success.
  • Streamline the admission processing time for online students.

As options for online education continue to expand, competition for students remains fierce. Public universities remain uniquely qualified to offer the high-quality, affordable instruction working adults seek. To meet their needs and to drive sustainable enrollment growth, universities must design programs and processes that deliver flexibility, accessibility and rapid response.


  1. U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016.
  2. Clinefelter, D.L. & Aslanian, C.B. (2017) Online college students 2017: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc., 42
  3. Clinefelter, D.L. & Aslanian, C.B. (2017), 39
  4. Clinefelter, D.L. & Aslanian, C.B. (2017), 9
  5. Clinefelter, D.L. & Aslanian, C.B. (2017), 10-11
  6. Clinefelter, D.L. & Aslanian, C.B. (2017), 10-11
  7. Clinefelter, D.L. & Aslanian, C.B. (2017), 16
  8. Clinefelter, D.L. & Aslanian, C.B. (2017), 15