How do community college students feel about online learning?

Blog Post
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.

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

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).

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.


[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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