5 benefits of
online learning
for community

Author: Katie McNeil

Following the pandemic, college enrollment has fallen to its lowest level since 2007. No institutions were more impacted than two-year community colleges, which had their lowest enrollment levels in 20 years, according to Census survey data.

But amid declining enrollment there is a silver lining for colleges and universities looking at a different group of potential students—"post-traditional" or "nontraditional" students, who are older than traditional college-aged students (17-24).

Challenges facing community colleges

But what exactly are the contributing factors to the especially difficult enrollment situation community colleges find themselves facing? There are three major factors leading to these difficulties: Declining enrollment, changing demographics and low completion rates.

Declining enrollment

Fueled by increasing tuition costs and a strong labor market, college enrollment has dropped steadily since 2012. The pandemic only accelerated that decline, with community colleges getting hit the hardest with enrollment down 13% since 2019.

Community colleges are seeing enrollment declines ease up a bit, thanks to dual-enrolled high schoolers. But attracting and retaining students remains one of the top challenges facing community colleges.

Changing demographics

Nontraditional students comprise a staggering 85% of the undergraduate populationThe National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) defines nontraditional students as possessing one or more of the following characteristics: Over 24 years old, financially independent, enrolled part-time, delayed enrollment after high school, full-time employment, having one or more dependents, single-parent classification and not having a high school diploma.

Enticed by affordability, proximity and flexibility, nontraditional students have historically turned to community colleges for postsecondary education. The new norm of lifelong learning can be a boon to community colleges but only if they have the resources to attract and retain these students.

Low completion rates

Community colleges offer easier access to higher education, but six out of ten students don't earn a degree. Students drop out for many reasons, but the cost of tuition and the rising cost of living are the main factors.

5 benefits of online learning for community colleges

Even before the pandemic, according to Higher Ed Dive, community college students were more likely to take and even prefer online classes. The Digital Learning Pulse survey showed 73% of college students plan to take some fully online courses in the future.

1. Flexibility

Online learning can be ideal, even necessary, for nontraditional learners juggling jobs and family outside of school. With online learning, students can learn at their own pace on their own time, to an extent. They no longer have to fit life entirely into their education, as their education fits into their life. Embracing online learning expands a community college's access to nontraditional students.

2. Affordability

Community colleges may offer lower tuition than four-year universities or colleges. Online learning can bring a student's costs down even further. Learning online eliminates the need to pay for on-campus housing, commutes to school, or childcare services. With online learning, students may even be able to avoid disruptions to their work, such as having to adjust their work schedules. This can, in turn, help them to offset some of the costs of learning as well.

3. Economic mobility 

Many nontraditional students aren't looking for advanced degrees but rather career advancement. One of the benefits of online learning is that workers can upskill and reskill on the job, without taking time off work. And in today's job market, skills may speak louder than diplomas. Higher education institutions and corporate learning programs are adapting by offering non-degree digital credentials. By offering these micro-credentials with online learning programs, community colleges can give students a leg up on new skills-based hiring trends. Unbundling degrees and offering shorter, competency-based credits also means students can graduate earlier and are less at risk of dropping out.

4. Personalized learning 

One of the surprising benefits of online learning is that despite the lack of face-to-face learning, students can potentially receive more personalized attention from professors in the right situations. Online courses can be designed to maximize guided discussions and frequent faculty feedback, which means students can interact with their instructor much more than they would in a large lecture hall.

5. Expanded networking opportunities

Over 11 million Americans live in an education desert, with limited or no access to higher education. Online learning can broaden a community college's reach to students in these underserved areas.

Technology requirements for online learning

These five benefits can certainly help change the game for community colleges looking to overcome their current enrollment challenges. That said, community college students cannot realize the benefits of online learning without a strong, reliable network and robust educational technology tools.

To support a seamless learning environment, online learning programs require:

High-speed internet

The backbone of online learning, a strong network connects learners with content and community with minimal latency. To ensure students can reliably access course materials and streaming video, a high-speed internet connection with speeds of 1.5Mbps or higher is recommended for online courses.

Learning management systems

The hub of an online student's educational experience, learning management systems centralize all materials and discussions for easy access. Whether their courses are synchronous or asynchronous, students need access to content, collaborative documents, faculty communication and cloud-based storage to enable learning.

Supported browsers

Students access learning management systems, campus email, collaborative software and other digital tools on a supported browser. Offering browser-based online learning means students can access learning wherever they have a connection, without the need to download an app.

Video conferencing platforms

Synchronous instruction leverages video conferencing platforms to enable students to meet together virtually. Beyond the basic live video feed, platform tools like polling and chat enable active rather than passive learning. Interactive features like screen sharing and digital whiteboards enhance the tutoring session with collaborative work that mirrors an in-person experience.

Online learning solutions for the future of community colleges

From declining enrollment to a changing job market, the post-pandemic challenges facing community colleges are forcing institutions to redefine education. The pandemic normalized distance learning. Moving forward, offering some amount of online learning—hybrid or not—will be the status quo for colleges.

The future of community colleges hinges on their ability to embrace the benefits of online learning. It is not only more flexible and affordable but it can also better prepare students for a changing job market.

From flexible online learning options to voice and collaboration technologies, Verizon's higher education solutions can power a better online learning experience and help overcome the challenges facing community colleges.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.