Our newest Online Education Trends Report reveals unique insights about online learning trends and COVID-19's impact on school and student perspectives.

New BestColleges Survey Tracks Online Education Trends Amid Pandemic


  • Our newest trends report analyzes school and student perspectives during COVID-19.
  • Nearly half of remote learners are open to online classes once schools return to normal.
  • Over three-fourths of administrators believe there will be a need and demand for online edu.
  • More than 9 in 10 students are willing to recommend online education to others.

As a consequence of the pandemic, nearly every student in higher education experienced some degree of distance learning last year. Online education had already emerged as a popular learning option in 2018, when more than one-third (35%) of U.S. college students enrolled in at least one online class.

But thousands more college students and school administrators found themselves learning and working at a distance — many for the first time ever — in 2020.

BestColleges' seventh annual Online Education Trends Report shares insights from 1,800 college students and 366 school administrators. The study, conducted in October and November 2020, collected feedback from multiple student and school perspectives, which we summarize here.

School and Student Perspectives on Online Education in 2020

This year's student participants included those who were enrolled online (i.e., those enrolled in courses and programs originally designed to be delivered online), those considering enrolling in online programs, and online program graduates.

We also surveyed remote students, whose courses were designed for in-person instruction but had to switch to a virtual delivery format due to COVID-19 restrictions.

School administrators participating in this year's survey represent a variety of roles, including institutional-level administrators, academic deans and directors, and admissions and enrollment managers.

We asked participants to share their challenges and lessons learned over the past year. Key findings from the 2021 report include insights about the experiences of learning online and remotely, how students make the decision to enroll in online programs, the different challenges schools face when offering distance learning opportunities, and overall student satisfaction.

Remote and Online Learning Experiences

Finances Remain an Ongoing Concern: Paying for college while minimizing student debt remains the top roadblock faced by online students on their way to graduation. This trend has persisted since our annual survey launched in 2016.

Remote Learners Send Encouraging Signal: About half (49%) of students studying remotely due to COVID-19 say they are likely to enroll in online courses, even after their schools return to normal operations.

COVID-19's Effects on Students May Be Extensive: For remote students, having their courses switch to a virtual learning format could have long-term effects, both positive and negative. While 36% of students said the experience made them more adaptable and flexible, 28% expressed concern regarding their mental health.

Student Recruitment and Decision-Making

Online Students Struggle to Find a Good Fit: The biggest challenge students said they face when making a decision to enroll in an online program is finding a program that meets their needs and interests. This is a change from previous years in which students identified estimating annual costs as the top challenge.

Student Research Includes Many Sources: Prospective students use a variety of resources to research and compare online programs, such as campus visits and rankings websites. This year, their top sources of information were college websites and online student reviews.

Alumni Provide Advice for Future Online Students: Online program graduates said they would not only conduct more research into costs and financial aid, but they would also compare more programs if they could go back and do the process again.

Online Program Design and Administration

Need and Demand for Online Education Continues to Grow: A vast majority of school administrators think there will be both a need (83%) and a demand (78%) for online courses over the next few years. They also predict further growth of programs in majors related to computer science, healthcare, and business.

Course Format Options May Expand in the Future: One-third of school administrators plan to continue offering both remote and online courses after returning to normal campus operations, potentially extending their institutions' reach and ability to meet an array of student needs and preferences through various formats.

Schools Face Challenges Meeting Multiple Priorities: While many school administrators held multiple priorities for the coming year, including faculty development (64%) and providing online support services (64%), more than half (58%) said institutional finances were the most challenging aspect of preparing for 2021.

Student Satisfaction

Perception of Online Education Is Strong: The debate around the quality of online education compared to on-campus education continues. A majority (74%) of the students surveyed said online learning was better than or equal to on-campus learning, and 64% of remote learners agreed.

Online Students Expect Return on Investment: In every year of this study, students report high expectations for a positive return on their online education investment. This year, 93% of participants in all student categories shared this expectation.

Most Students Are Willing to Recommend Online Learning: An overwhelming majority (95%) of students said they would recommend their educational experience to others. This includes 83% of remote learners, who — despite the challenges of the past year — seem to have found a silver lining in the experience.

The Changing Landscape of Higher Education

The BestColleges research report series provides an in-depth look at the state of online education today. In addition to more details about the findings presented above, our 2021 Online Education Trends Report includes information about student demographics, predictions for the future of higher education, and recommendations for online program development.

You can view and download this year's report at BestColleges' research hub.


Feature Image: Manuel Tauber-Romieri / EyeEm / Getty Images