SURVEY SAYS: Online College Education Is Fairly OK If You Ignore The For-Profit Mess

A new study from SR Education Group analyzing more than 4,000 reviews by online college students shows that online colleges lag behind traditional brick-and-mortar colleges in terms of student satisfaction — though the happiness gap isn’t as big as you might think.

Also, students enrolled in nonprofit online degree programs are much happier than students in for-profit programs. (RELATED: Here Are 11 Colleges Offering Online Degrees That Don’t Suck. In Fact, They’re Awesome)

The biggest complaint among online college students — at both nonprofits and for-profits — is that schools fail to offer anything approaching meaningful support outside the classroom.

Online students tend to be happy with their professors and with the quality of instruction they receive. To the extent online students are displeased, it’s because academic advisers are unresponsive and financial aid staffers are terrible and career placement and other support services are lackluster.

“Student opinion shows financial support is often not received by mandatory deadlines due to errors caused by financial aid departments,” the study explains. “This regularly leads to issues during enrollment, such as students not being able to sign up for classes on time or not being able to fund personal expenses like rent payments.”

The study shows that 71 percent of all online learners are ultimately satisfied with their degree programs.

However, the satisfaction quotient climbs to 76 percent when for-profit online degree programs are discarded. (RELATED: For-Profit Colleges Sue To Keep Billions In Federal Aid Flowing Despite Awful Student Outcomes)

Here is a chart from the SR Education study comparing online student satisfaction data at nonprofit colleges and for-profit colleges:


Online for-profit vs. online non-profit schools - how do they stack up

For a specific comparison of online degree programs and traditional on-campus programs, SR Education Group turned to Arizona State University, which offers identical diplomas to online and traditional degree recipients. (In other words, if you get your degree at Arizona State entirely online, no one has to know.)

The results at Arizona State are decidedly grimmer for online education than they are in the survey generally.

While 80 percent of traditional students and 80 percent of online students indicate optimism that their degrees will help their careers, Arizona State’s online programs fare worse in three other categories: quality of instruction, degree satisfaction and financial aid.

The degree satisfaction numbers for Arizona State’s online programs are especially brutal. While 71 percent of campus students at Arizona State University say they are satisfied with their degrees, just 47 percent of online students say they are satisfied.

SR Education Group’s study sampled hundreds of student reviews.

The company operates its own college reviews site,, which is basically a Yelp especially for education.

As of 2013, about 5.25 million people were enrolled in some kind of distance-learning program.

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