How Are Future Students Approaching Online vs Campus Education

Covid-19 has forced colleges and universities all over the country to close their campuses. As a result, search volume for e-learning platforms currently exceeds volume for on-campus options by a massive margin.

This shift is also causing marketers to take a closer look at trends for both options from the past few years. After examining pre-pandemic data from Digital Media Solutions®, we observed that search volume for online and on-campus followed an upward trend from 2017 to 2019. However, the increase in volume for online formats was more significant than on-campus. Online’s peak volume in 2019 was 50.9% higher than the volume for Q1 2017. For on-campus, the peak 2019 volume was only 18.5% higher than Q1 2017.

Throughout the 3-year reporting period, the share of volume for online programs increased from 60.1% in 2017 to 61.5% in 2019. The peak share for online programs was 64.2% in Q2 of 2019. This trend has likely been skewed heavily for 2020 thus far.

The DMS data breaks down the volume of inquiries based on degree levels in 2019. For on-campus programs, the largest inquiry share belonged to Diplomas, followed closely by Bachelor’s degrees. Diplomas also grew the most from the previous year, increasing 17% from 2018. For online programs, the largest inquiry share belonged to Bachelor’s degrees, with Master’s and Associate’s not too far behind. The largest YoY increase belonged to Bachelor’s degrees, which increased 17% in terms of inquiry volume.

Looking at the major differences between the two learning formats, we see Diplomas skew heavily towards campus programs. Surprisingly, graduate programs highly favored online formats. Master’s and Doctorate programs made up almost 36% of inquiries for online, and only around 8% for campus programs. This trend is likely due to more professionals looking to continue working while taking part in graduate programs, which is much easier to accomplish with online learning.

In addition to general volume trends, DMS also looked into the most prevalent program categories for both formats. In the online format, we see Health Professions, Business, Education, Psychology and Public Administration round out the top five categories. For campus programs, the top 5 categories were Health Professions, Business, Mechanics, Precision Production and Homeland Security/Law Enforcement.

For both formats, we see Health Profession programs take the top volume spot, accounting for more than a third of inquiries. Business took the second most popular spot for both formats, showing more growth in the online format with 11% YoY than the campus format, at 5.6% YoY. The deviations occur in spots 3-5, where campus-based programs consist of more hands-on categories like Law Enforcement, Mechanics, and Precision Production, while online programs leaned more towards Education, Psychology and Public administration.

One of the largest takeaways for the campus sector can be found by looking at the growth rates of certain categories. In terms of the top five for each format, the largest YoY growths were present among campus-based programs, with Mechanic (30.34% YoY) achieving the fastest growth, and Homeland Security/Law Enforcement (20.71%) and Precision Production (20.50%) following behind. The growth rates seen here illustrate the increasing popularity of Trades, which opens up growth opportunities for trade schools and certification programs. In the early 2010’s, there was a general decline in interest for trade-based learning. But as workers in those sectors become more difficult to find, there is a resurgence in education and emphasis for such programs.

Although the data from Digital Media Solutions® by no means contains all the inquiries for programs throughout the years, it offers an important glimpse into clearly observable trends across the Education sector. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic triggered the online shift, interest in online/e-learning programs was increasing. We expect this trend to grow even further over the coming years, with trade-based learning and surgical programs taking longer to adjust. Thanks to improvements to AR and VR platforms, there will even be an increase in e-learning for programs that were previously seen as hands-on only.

For the full report from Digital Media Solutions®, you can download it here.

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