Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning has been the topic of numerous debates. Many K–12 schools moved to online learning and colleges and universities started offering even more online classes. But while COVID-19 brought attention to online learning, online learning has been around since long before the pandemic. Who takes these online classes and why do they choose online classes over traditional in-person learning? In this article, online learning and education will refer to both virtual classes held within the timeframe of a traditional semester and courses that are completely independent and self-guided.

The Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017, conducted by the Digital Learning Compass organization reported that higher education students enrolled in at least one online course topped six million in 2015 (Online Learning Consortium).

According to UTEP Connect, 68% of students enrolled in online education already have a career and are either looking to change careers or advance in their current career. The ability to fit an online degree around an existing schedule appeals to these professionals, but others are also taking advantage of the increase in online course availability.

OnlineLearning reported the following in regards to demographic information of the online student population: 

  • Gender: More women than men enroll in online degree programs, especially at the undergraduate level.
  • Age: While the highest percentage of online learners fall between the ages of 25 and 29, online programs tend to attract a larger share of older, “nontraditional” students.
  • Family life: About half of online learners are married with children under the age of 18.
  • Employment: Nearly 40% of undergraduate students and 60% of graduate students work full-time while attending online colleges and universities.
  • Ethnicity: Some colleges and organizations are using online programs and tools to improve college access for underrepresented students. Experts suggest such initiatives are works in progress.
  • Proximity: The majority of online students historically lived less than 100 miles from their institutions. However, according to a 2014 Learning House Report, this share is declining rapidly, falling from 80% to 54% in just two years.

As stated above, online courses tend to attract nontraditional students. The National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) has specific criteria for defining nontraditional students, and they tend to fall into at least one of the following categories: (Tooley)
  • Full-time workers
  • Part-time students
  • Older students who delayed college or are seeking a second degree
  • Students who are financially independent
  • Parents to at least one dependent

One of the major reasons online classes attract nontraditional students is flexibility. These students tend to have more responsibilities, such as obligations to family or their career, than the average, just out of high school, college student. Other students also take advantage of online courses. The ability to complete a course without being tied to a physical location or time zone is majorly beneficial to students who move or travel often. The Learning House reports that in 2014, 17% of online learners were active or veteran military, their spouses, or their dependents (Tooley). It also benefits those that don’t live near a desired university or can’t travel to one. Students with disabilities take advantage of the many accessibility tools built-in to online courses that are unavailable in an in-person classroom (check out some of those functions in Exploring E-textbooks: Pros and Cons). For those students that are self-directed and extremely motivated, an online course allows them to move at their own pace and finish a course as fast as they want. 

If you are trying to make the choice on whether an online class is right for you, it is important to understand yourself as a student. Is in-person interaction important to you? Do you need heavily structured classes or do you thrive at going at your own pace? Do you have time for a traditional degree or do you need the flexibility of an online degree program? All of these questions and more are important when deciding on what program or university is right for you.


Online Learning Consortium. (n.d.). New study: Over six million students now enrolled in distance education. OLC. Retrieved July 20, 2022, from

Tooley, A. (2021, August 17). Online student trends and success factors – OnlineEducation. Retrieved July 20, 2022, from

UTEP Connect. (2018, January). The who, what, when and why behind online education. UTEP Connect Extended University. Retrieved July 20, 2022, from