Online Learning Statistics

Nearly 9 million college students take classes completely online. Find statistics and student poll results about online learning in our report.
portrait of Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and data writer for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evaluati...
Updated on June 28, 2023
Edited by
portrait of Jordan Stewart-Rozema, Ph.D.
Jordan Stewart-Rozema, Ph.D.
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Jordan Stewart-Rozema writes data-driven education content focusing on higher education trends, student finances, and alternative education pathways such as coding bootcamps. She previously worked to promote online learning and media literacy educati...
Fact-checked by Marley Rose
Learn more about our editorial process
Image Credit: eclipse_images / E+ / Getty Images

Data Summary

  • Check
    In 2021, 11.2 million college students (60%) took at least one class online.[1]
  • Check
    That's a decrease from 2020, when 14.2 million college students (75%) took at least one class online.Note Reference [1]
  • Check
    About 8.9 million students (47%) take college classes exclusively online.Note Reference [1]
  • Check
    A little more than 1 in 10 postsecondary institutions offer courses primarily online.[2]
  • Check
    2.8 million students (15%) attend these fully online colleges.Note Reference [2]
  • Check
    The average net cost of online college is about $600 per credit hour.[3]
  • Check
    96% of online program alums recommended online learning.[4]
  • Check
    47% of school administrators said their schools planned to increase spending on online learning programs.Note Reference [4]

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, remote learning in higher education peaked. Since then, campuses have re-opened, and fewer students are participating in online classes. But, distance learning and fully online degree programs remain popular options.

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 2021, about 6 in 10 college students took at least one course online.Note Reference [1]

  • About 30% of students took classes exclusively online.
  • Another 30% had some but not all of their classes online.
  • 40% of students did not take any online courses.

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

  • 61% of undergraduates took at least one course online, versus 56% of graduate students.
  • 58% of students at four-year schools and 65% of students at two-year schools took at least one course online.
  • 63% of public college students and 53% 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. However, it tapered somewhat in fall 2021.

Online learning may be here to stay. BestColleges' 2023 Online Education Trends Report found that 47% of administrators planned on increasing their spending on online learning programs. Half (50%) said their spending wouldn't change from last year. Just 3% expected their budgets for online program development to decrease.

Enrollment in Online Courses by State

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

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.Note Reference [2]

Online colleges enrolled 2.8 million students (15% of all college students) in 2020,Note Reference [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.Note Reference [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.

In 2023, BestColleges surveyed 1,800 prospective online students, current online students, remote learners, and online program graduates. We found:Note Reference [4]

  • 68% of current online students held full-time or part-time employment.
  • 95% had children under 18 living in their household.

Is Online College Cheaper? Average Tuition and Fees

Online College Tuition

Just 39 distance-learning-only institutions in the NCES College Navigator database reported their 2021-2022 net price for full-time, first-year undergraduate students.Note Reference [3]

  • The average net price of these online colleges is about $18,020 a year.
  • Public online colleges cost about $12,980 a year, on average.
  • Private nonprofit online colleges cost about $15,940 a year, on average.
  • Private for-profit online colleges cost $20,980 a year, on average.

The average net price per credit hour for online colleges was about $600.Note Reference [3] However, the least expensive online colleges can cost less than $200 a credit hour.

Online Learning vs. In-Person Program Costs

Nonprofit Quality Matters surveyed chief online officers at nearly 400 schools about how their online learning tuition compared to equivalent on-campus offerings at their institutions.[7]

  • 14% said online programs were priced lower or generally lower compared to in-person programs.
  • 16% said online programs were priced higher or generally higher than in-person ones.
  • 69% said online and in-person programs were priced the same or generally the same.

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:[8]

  • 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.

Survey Data: What Students Say About Online Learning

Many online students surveyed in our 2023 Online Education Trends report shared positive experiences with online learning:Note Reference [4]

  • 96% of online college graduates would recommend online learning.
  • 93% of graduates said their online degree will result in a positive return on investment.
  • Three-quarters of students (75%) said online education was better than or equal to in-person learning — a five percentage point increase from last year.

But online program alums also encountered challenges. Their top challenges were:

  • Paying for school while minimizing student debt (26%)
  • Encountering unexpected circumstances or personal life events (20%)
  • Staying on track with classes in order to graduate in the planned time frame (15%)

Additionally, 30% of online program graduates said they wish they would have done more research about cost and financial aid.Note Reference [4]