Online Learning Statistics

Nearly 3 million students go to college completely online. Find statistics and student poll results about online learning in our report.

Updated September 12, 2022

Online Learning Statistics
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Data Summary

  • In 2020, 5.4 million college students (74%) took at least one class online.[1]
  • A little more than 1 in 10 postsecondary institutions offer courses primarily online.[2]
  • 2.8 million students (15%) attend primarily online colleges.Footnote [2]
  • The average net cost of online college is $516 per credit hour.[3]
  • With fees included, 54% of colleges charge remote students more than in-person students.[4]
  • In BestColleges' 2022 Online Education Trends Report, 95% of online program alums recommended online learning.
  • 43% of school administrators said they would continue offering remote and online options after pandemic-related campus closures.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, colleges across the country shifted to remote learning. But in-person schools offering online options began well before 2020. Additionally, hundreds of schools primarily offer online degree programs.

This report dives into the statistics around online learning. It covers fully online colleges and distance learning options for on-campus programs. Plus, survey data reveals what college students really think about online education.

Online Education Enrollment Statistics

In Fall 2020, almost three-quarters of college students took at least one course online.Footnote [1]

  • About 46% of students took classes exclusively online.
  • About 29% of students had some but not all of their classes online.
  • 26% of students did not take any online courses.

Online classes were slightly more popular among undergraduates, at four-year colleges, and at public institutions.Footnote [1]

  • 75% of undergraduates took at least one course online, versus 71% of graduate students.
  • 76% of students at four-year schools and 69% of students at two-year schools took at least one course online.
  • 77% of public college students and 68% of private college students took at least one course online.

Over the past twenty years, it has become increasingly common for students to take at least some of their courses online. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused this trend to accelerate.

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tables 311.22 and 311.15.

Online learning may be here to stay. In BestColleges' 2022 Online Education Trends Report, 43% of school administrators said their institutions would continue offering remote and online courses into the future — a 10 percentage point increase from what administrators reported in 2021.

Additionally, 12% of the 1300 online college students surveyed in BestColleges' 2022 Trends in Online Student Demographics report said they chose online learning options due to the overall impact of COVID-19 on higher education.

Enrollment in Online Courses by State

Below, find the percent of students who take college courses online by students' state of residence.

Percent of Students Enrolled in Online College Courses, 2020

Source: NCES Trend Generator Report

Online Colleges Statistics

In 2020, there were 422 online colleges — i.e., postsecondary institutions that offered courses primarily online. These colleges represent 11% of all postsecondary institutions.Footnote [2]

Online colleges enrolled 2.8 million students (15% of all college students) in 2020,Footnote [2] including:

  • 14% of all full-time students
  • 17% of all part-time students
  • 14% of all undergraduate students
  • 16% of all graduate students

Primarily online schools are more diverse than other postsecondary institutions. Students of color are enrolled at greater percentages at these schools than they are across all schools.Footnote [2]

And unlike the demographic profile across all postsecondary institutions, there's no one racial majority at these schools — white students make up less than half of all students enrolled at primarily online schools.

Source: NCES

In 2022, BestColleges surveyed 1,800 prospective online students, current online students, remote learners, and online program graduates. We found that:

  • 65% of current online students held full-time or part-time employment.
  • 91% had children under 18 living in their household.
  • More than half described their motivation to enroll as "career-minded."

Source: BestColleges' 2022 Online Education Trends Report

Average Tuition and Fees for Online Education

Online College Tuition

Just 33 distance-learning-only institutions in NCES' College Navigator database reported their 2020-2021 net price for full-time first-year undergraduate students.

  • The average net price of these online colleges is $15,467 a year.
  • Public online colleges cost about $10,000 a year, on average.
  • Private nonprofit online colleges cost about $15,000 a year, on average.
  • Private for-profit online colleges cost $17,000 a year, on average.

The average net price per credit hour for online colleges was $516.Footnote [3] However, the least expensive online colleges can cost less than $200 a credit hour.

Remote Learning Fees

Remote learners — students enrolled in on-campus programs who attend class online — may be exempt from some campus-related fees. However, they can accrue other fees for technology use that add to the true cost of online college.

In a 2016 survey of nearly 200 colleges:Footnote [4]

  • 75% of colleges charged in-person and remote students the same tuition.
  • Just 27% of colleges charged in-person and remote students the same total price, which includes fees.
  • 54% of colleges charged remote learners more in total price.

Source: WCET Distance Education Price and Cost Report (2017)

Survey Data: What Students Say About Online Learning

When we surveyed over 700 undergraduates in 2021, 39% of students who started learning remotely due to the pandemic said they missed attending classes in person. Even so, almost half wanted to keep the option for online learning, even after in-person classes resumed.

Many online students surveyed in our 2022 Online Education Trends report shared positive experiences:

  • 95% of online college graduates would recommend online learning.
  • 70% of students said online education was better than or equal to in-person learning.
  • 60% of remote learners said they would likely enroll in online classes again.

But online program alums also offered the following cautions:

  • Their top challenges were paying for school while minimizing student debt and staying on track to graduate.
  • Their top regret was not doing more research about cost and financial aid before beginning their program.


References

  1. Table 311.15. Number and percentage of students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by distance education participation, location of student, level of enrollment, and control and level of institution: Fall 2019 and fall 2020. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). November 2021.
  2. Table 311.33. Selected statistics for degree-granting postsecondary institutions that primarily offer online programs, by control of institution and selected characteristics: Fall 2020 and 2019-20. NCES. March 2022.
  3. NCES' College Navigator database. Calculation assumes 30 credit hours per academic year.
  4. Poulin, R. & Straut, T., WCET Distance Education Price and Cost Report. February 2017.