Half of Remote College Students Plan to Stay Online Post-Pandemic

Half of Remote College Students Plan to Stay Online Post-Pandemic
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By Anne Dennon

Published on May 20, 2021

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Most college students will have the option to continue learning remotely for the foreseeable future. But while studies indicate a drop in both morale and grades during the past year's switch to remote learning due to the pandemic, many students say they plan to stay at least partially online.

According to BestColleges.com's 2021 Online Education Trends Report, which collected data from 1,800 college students and 366 school administrators in the fall, nearly half of all students surveyed said they were likely to engage in online (49%) or remote (48%) learning even after colleges resume normal operations.

Remote students — i.e., those who are enrolled in campus-based programs but have to take some or all classes online due to COVID-19 — were equally likely to plan to stay online as they were to learn in person this spring.

Meanwhile, 1 in 4 remote students said they're unlikely to take online courses again. A majority of remote students (57%) plan to enroll in at least some in-person courses once campus operations resume.

This resistance among students to go back to traditional, in-person education seems to mirror educators' and district officials' opposition to returning to school full time. The cause of this "school hesitancy" may lie less in the pandemic, K-12 educators speculate, and more in official messaging about safety and the convenience of staying home. College students returning to campus could be experiencing similar hesitancy.

Nearly 2 in 3 Remote Students Call Online Learning Equal to or Better Than In-Person

The overwhelming majority of students (93%) said they have had, or expect to have, a positive return on their investment in online education. A majority of students (74%) also called online learning better than or equal to on-campus learning.

Pre-pandemic, around one-third of college students had taken an online course, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Now, effectively every student in the U.S. has experienced online learning.

While online education might not have been their first choice, students and teachers have pointed to the "restrictive, inflexible, and impractical" nature of traditional classrooms for years. The quality and convenience of learning online seems to have converted most, with nearly 2 in 3 remote students (64%) saying learning online is better than or equal to learning in person.

Remote Learning Tied to Rise in Mental Health Issues, Lower Levels of Engagement

College students have grown accustomed to online education, and many plan to continue logging on for class moving forward. Nevertheless, many students feel they're missing out on the traditional college experience.

Previous BestColleges.com surveys found that 90% of college students anticipate long-term mental health impacts from remote learning. Many learners also reported spending more time in front of screens, interacting less with peers and professors, and developing unhealthy habits.

When morale and engagement are low, grades suffer. Over half of college students have had difficulty completing their homework on time this school year, while one-third have experienced trouble maintaining the minimum required GPA.

Education and health experts warn that extended remote learning could negatively impact students' mental health, social lives, and academic progress. More than a quarter (28%) of remote students said the transition online during COVID-19 will delay their graduation. Another 28% anticipated that the mental health impacts of the past year's learning changes will persist in the long term.

Still, the crash course in online education hasn't been all bad. Twenty-nine percent of remote students cited increased familiarity with new technologies, and 36% said they've learned greater adaptability and flexibility. Over 4 in 5 remote students (83%) also said they would recommend online or remote learning to others.

Despite Challenges, College Students Have Adapted to Online Learning

Remote students were more likely to struggle to get established with online learning this year, likely due to their unfamiliarity with the delivery format and a lack of access to reliable Wi-Fi and the technology needed to participate in online lessons.

A little under half (43%) of remote learners surveyed reported facing challenges with accessing technology, compared to 21% of online learners. Remote students were also more likely than online students to be concerned about adapting to the virtual learning environment (20% vs. 12%).

These initial roadblocks ultimately posed bigger concerns for remote college students than how learning online would look on their resumes. Fewer than 1 in 10 (8%) remote learners indicated feeling concerned about how future employers would perceive their online learning.

College students by and large are eager to return to campus, but both students and schools aim to balance online and in-person learning options. Just 16% of colleges said they plan to remove the remote options introduced during the pandemic, while two-thirds (67%) intend to preserve or extend online and remote learning options.


Feature Image: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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