How do community college students feel about online learning? (2023)


Tiffany Thai


Olivia Cheche


Sophie Nguyen

March 7, 2023

This blog post is part of a series that explores the data from New America's latest Community College Enrollment Survey. You can read this first blog in this series here.

Online learning has been a part of higher education since before the pandemic. In the fall of 2019, over one third of undergraduates (36 percent) enrolled in programs that had at least one online course. At this time, however, these students were more likely to enroll at for-profit or private nonprofit two-year institutions. Not until the COVID-19 pandemic did online learning become more widespread across all sectors, including public and private non-profit four-year institutions.

In the fall of 2020 when most colleges and universities continued online learning due to the pandemic, 75 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in at least one online course, including 73 percent at public two-year institutions. Undoubtedly, the pandemic pushed all colleges and universities to act quickly to adopt online learning, which has often been deemed inferior to in-person learning. And even now, as campuses have reopened and instruction and other activities can happen like they did before the pandemic, the demand for online courses and the adoption of online learning has not dissipated.

(Video) Effective Online Teaching: Community Colleges

This blog explores what current students and those who stopped out from community colleges think about online learning and whether the learning mode influences their decision to enroll. It is the second part in a series that presents findings from our recent survey in which we studied why current, former, and prospective community college students decided to enroll or not. This survey is a follow-up to a similar survey we conducted in 2020 to learn about the impact of the pandemic on enrollment decline at community colleges.

The survey shows that in the fall of 2022, 37 percent of continuers (those who enrolled anytime between January 2021 and 2022 and continued to enroll in fall 2022) and 38 percent of new students (those who considered and actually enrolled in the following fall semester) enrolled in completely or mostly online programs. These numbers represent a significant drop from the early days of the pandemic when COVID-19 precautions established online learning as the norm for 71 percent of continuers and 78 percent of new students.[1] But while not as many students enrolled in online programs as two years ago, not many came back to fully in-person programs either: only 23 percent of continuers and 28 percent of new students were enrolled in fully in-person programs (See Figure 1).

One top finding from this survey is that a lot more students think online courses provide better educational quality than in-person courses compared to two years ago. In 2020, only 25 percent of continuers and 19 percent of new students thought online courses were better quality; but now, 37 percent of continuers (a plurality) and 29 percent of new students believe online courses are better. Even among those who were not enrolled, opinions about the quality of online learning have also changed, though not quite to the level of continuing and new students. Only 15 percent of stop-outs (those who enrolled between spring 2021 and 2022 but stopped in fall 2022) and 12 percent of aspirants (those who considered enrolling but did not enroll in fall 2022) thought online courses were better in quality than in-person courses in 2020–two years later, the number has increased to 20 percent for both groups (See Figure 2).

There seems to be a huge gap in satisfaction with online learning among currently enrolled students and those who are not. While roughly three in four continuers and new students are satisfied with the instructional quality of online classes, only half of stop-outs agree. And while two in three continuers and new students rate the instructional quality of online learning as either excellent or good, less than half of stop-outs (44 percent) and aspirants (49 percent) do. (See Figure 3). Stops-outs and aspirants are also more likely than other groups to have not taken an online course

(Video) Community College Online Classes

The more doubtful attitude towards online learning among stop-outs makes sense, as they might have experienced the biggest challenges with the sudden shift online without sticking around to get comfortable with the modality or see improvements colleges made to online offerings. In the previous survey when we asked if students think the transition from in-person to online instruction during the pandemic increased or decreased the quality of their programs, stop-outs were more likely to say the pivot to online decreased the quality than continuers and new students (45 percent of stop-outs compared to 39 percent of continuers and 34 percent of new students).

Students across all four enrollment groups prefer that at least some of their coursework continue to be remote. Nearly two in three continuers, 59 percent of stop-outs, 56 percent of new students, and 71 percent of aspirants prefer to either be partially or fully online. Having said that, a decent share of students still prefer to attend completely in person: 35 percent of continuers, 34 percent of stop-outs, 40 percent of new students, and 24 percent of aspirants (See Figure 4).

Between one quarter and one third of respondents who prefer a mix of in-person and online classes (26 percent of continuers, 32 percent of stop-outs, and 31 percent of aspirants) cited flexible scheduling as a top reason. For these students, the mixed learning mode offers the best of both worlds, allowing them to engage with peers and faculty in-person to some degree while still crafting a schedule that accommodates their other obligations (See Table 1).

Flexibility also emerges as the main theme for respondents who prefer a fully online learning model. Between one fifth and one third of respondents prefer attending fully online (20 percent of continuers, 32 percent of stop-outs, and 33 percent of aspirants). For these students, they like the ability to take classes on their own schedule and a fully-online program offers just that. A number of students like to be fully online because they prefer to be at home instead of in the classroom. The ability to balance school with family responsibilities also makes the fully-online learning mode appealing to students (See Table 2).

(Video) Ivy League vs Community College: Which Education Is Better? | Middle Ground

In contrast, students’ reasons for preferring the fully in-person mode have less to do with flexibility and more to do with concentration and relationship-building. Of those who said they prefer in-person learning, nearly 18 percent of continuers, 23 percent of stop-outs, 26 percent of new students, and 20 percent of aspirants said they find it easier to concentrate in the classroom setting. In addition, between 14 and 18 percent of respondents are motivated by the ability to interact and develop relationships with other students and faculty (See Table 3).

Learning modality (whether fully in-person, hybrid, or fully online) plays a role in students’ decision to enroll. Among those who did not enroll in fall 2022, roughly a third of stop-outs (30 percent) and aspirants (36 percent) said they did not want to take classes in the new learning mode of the program. When we asked stops-out and aspirants what would make them more likely to enroll in the future, we found that a majority of stop-outs (51 percent) and aspirants (66 percent) would be more likely to enroll in a program if it were offered in their preferred learning mode (See Figure 5).

Findings from the survey suggest that online learning is here to stay. While not as many students enroll in fully-online and mostly online programs compared to two years ago, a majority of students enjoy the flexibility of online learning and would prefer to have a mix of online and in-person instruction in their program. Whether a program is offered in the learning mode of their choice also plays a role in students’ decision to enroll. The findings suggest that community colleges should still maintain diverse options of learning modes and at the same time, enhance the quality of the instruction and services offered to students in both in-person and online environments.

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[1] In the survey we conducted in December 2020, “continuers” were those who enrolled in the spring of 2020 and continued enrollment in the fall, “stop-outs” were those who enrolled in the spring of 2020 but stopped in the fall, “new students” were those who considered enrolling in the spring and enrolled in the fall, and “aspirants” were those who considered enrolling in the spring but did not enroll in the fall.

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Higher Ed Data


How do community college students feel about online learning? ›

While not as many students enroll in fully-online and mostly online programs compared to two years ago, a majority of students enjoy the flexibility of online learning and would prefer to have a mix of online and in-person instruction in their program.

Are college students struggling with online classes? ›

We found that during the transition to remote learning, 67% of students experienced struggle. The most reported struggles included: shifts in class format, effective study habits, time management, and increased external commitments.

Why do college students prefer online learning? ›

More Reasons to Study Online

Convenience and flexibility: As an online student, you can study anytime anywhere. There are no physical class sessions. Online learning a good option for students who need to balance their work and family commitments.

How successful are students in online college courses compared to students taking face-to-face classes? ›

Similar to the academic year, success rates in online classes are lower than face-to-face classes. But this gap is decreasing. In Summer 19, face-to-face classes had a success rate of 80% in comparison to 76% in online classes, a gap of 4%. Back in Summer 15, this gap was 7%.

How online school affects college students? ›

Let's find out some of the major effects of online learning and solutions for them.
  • Social Isolation. ...
  • Lack of Skill Development. ...
  • Less Interactive Knowledge. ...
  • Affect On Mental Health. ...
  • Physical Health Effects. ...
  • No Practical Knowledge. ...
  • Low Academic Performance.
Jan 16, 2023

Do college students like online learning? ›

2. 70% of students agree that online classes are better than traditional classroom settings. A report from the University of Potomac has found a large percentage of its students prefer online learning over a traditional learning setting.

Do college students learn better online or in a classroom? ›

Scientists looking at the effectiveness of distance learning found that in some studies, distance education students performed slightly better in exams and grades than traditional classroom students, but that overall the average performance outcomes weren't that different.

How effective is online learning for college? ›

The results are generally consistent with past research: Online coursework generally yields worse student performance than in-person coursework. The negative effects of online course-taking are particularly pronounced for less-academically prepared students and for students pursuing bachelor's degrees.

What percentage of college students prefer online classes? ›

In 2021, 11.2 million college students (60%) took at least one class online. That's a decrease from 2020, when 14.2 million college students (75%) took at least one class online. About 8.9 million students (47%) take college classes exclusively online.

Why are online college classes harder? ›

The only thing that can make an online class seem harder is the amount of reading and communication they require. In a traditional class, you might listen to a lecture and take notes. As the teacher asks questions, one student might answer each question.

How does online learning affect students social interactions? ›

They may also miss face-to-face interactions with fellow students. For some students, this lack of social interaction – and the accompanying need to be self-motivated to get their work done – can lead to feelings of isolation.

What are the disadvantages of online classes? ›

What are the 5 disadvantages of online classes?
  • Lack of face-to-face interaction.
  • Difficulty staying motivated.
  • Limited access to resources and support.
  • Technical difficulties.
  • Isolation.

How has online learning affected students mental health? ›

Youth participating in virtual learning also reported feeling less social connection and higher rates of mental health problems, in comparison to their peers who could attend school in-person or in a hybrid model.

Is online learning as good as face to face learning? ›

Is online learning better than face-to-face learning? In many ways, online learning is more effective than face to face learning. As research shows 80% of organizations believe their use of digital learning will remain the same, increase or decrease only slightly as restrictions on live training ease.

What is the success rate of online learning? ›

When it comes to the difference between passing and failing, on-campus courses had better outcomes. Researchers found that 63 percent of students pass traditional courses, but just 56 percent pass online classes, according to USA Today.

How many students struggle with online school? ›

Not everyone loved online learning during the pandemic — especially in the early stages, when it was at its most haphazard. Nearly three in 10 students in a Strada Education survey in the fall of 2020 said their ability to learn was much worse online than in person.

How many college students struggle with online learning? ›

If you go back to the first days of the COVID crisis, when campuses across the country were shutting down, college students weren't very happy with emergency online learning. Surveys conducted then showed deep dissatisfaction, with as many as 70 percent saying they didn't like it.

How COVID affected online learning? ›

Particularly susceptible to health and academic disparities were TGNC adolescents and adolescents in virtual learning only. Both reported a more significant drop in academic success and less satisfaction with school in 2020-21 compared to the previous school year.


1. Community College Leaders on Equity and Access in Higher Education | Civitas Learning
(Civitas Learning)
2. NOVA Online Learning
(NOVA Community College)
3. How to be Successful in Online Classes
(Surry Community College)
4. Probability | Lecture- 17 | CUET UG 2024 | Vikas Kumar
(CUET UG by Unacademy)
5. Cheating Is Easier Than Ever For Online College Students | TODAY
6. Advancing Equity and Online Learning at Community Colleges with Open Educational Resources
(The Michelson 20MM Foundation)


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