Do College Students Need to Go Back to Campus? Research Says Maybe.

The last few years catapulted colleges and universities into a new era of virtual learning. Because the higher education industry is built on tradition, this shift is intriguing – and wildly complex.

For many students, the appeal of a completely virtual experience may be hard to resist. After all, online classes are more conducive to busy schedules and mental health challenges. Even so, the college years are formative ones. Part of that involves peer-to-peer interaction, hands-on discovery, mentorship opportunities, and social participation that students can’t always get virtually.

Invaluable new research found that Black, Hispanic, and low-income community college students who have a course load with some (up to half) online classes are more likely to complete their degrees. That same study found that students who take only online classes are less likely to complete their degrees. Safe to say, balance is the name of the game.

Despite these findings, the number of students laser-focused on an exclusively virtual learning environment has increased. Wiley University Services recently conducted a fascinating survey of 2,500 adults who enrolled (or are planning to enroll) in fully remote degree or certificate programs. Most of the respondents (77%) decided to seek out online programs before they decided on a major or field of study. For these students, if it’s not online, it’s not an option.

The study also found that these online learners are especially motivated by professional goals. Traditionally, young adults enter their college years with a loose plan and lofty career ambitions. However, dedicated online learners seem to be more realistic and deliberate in their approach. Almost 90% of the people surveyed reported a positive professional outcome that can be attributed to their virtual education:

  • 36% reported a salary increase
  • 29% reported they have more marketable skills
  • 26% got a new job
  • 26% increased their confidence at work
  • 20% received a promotion


As positive as these outcomes are, there are many other students who can’t/shouldn’t exist solely online during college. For some, a physical campus may be their only access to computers, the Internet, or other resources. It’s an issue directly tied to accessibility and persistence – which is why there will always be a need for traditional in-person education, hybrid schedules, or asynchronous instruction.

As colleges and universities continue to define their own versions of online learning, students will need to be more intentional about the kinds of schools or programs they need. Part of this involves an adjustment of expectations. It’s also up to higher education leaders to help students get the most out of a virtual education. Here are three tips to remember – and share with students:

Know the limits

Depending on the major, virtual options may be limited. Still, new innovations pop up every year. Even medical schools use virtual cadavers and surgery simulators as teaching mechanisms. However, there are many fields of study for which physical attendance is non-negotiable. In the survey of 2,500 online learners, 18% of respondents anticipated laboratory courses in their programs. Of those students, 58% were willing to attend lab courses in person. The remaining students either preferred online simulations or at-home kits. For some degree programs, the latter two options simply aren’t feasible. As long as students know their limits within the virtual education landscape, they can go far.

Mix it up

Some say personality type plays a role in whether a student prefers virtual classes. But it’s also circumstantial. If time and resources allow, the hybrid schedule may be a happy medium. The Institute of Higher Education’s Justin Ortagus makes a great point about the benefits of a hybrid course load:

“Many students facing time or location constraints may not be able to enroll in some face-to-face courses due to schedule conflicts, but enrolling in a few online courses would allow these students to earn additional credits. In addition, community college students who only take face-to-face courses may be forced to wait a semester or two to enroll in certain high-demand courses due to space constraints, but online courses can remove this barrier and allow students to continue to make progress toward their degree.”

Remember That This is Uncharted Territory for Many

When colleges and universities first made that monumental shift online in 2020, it was tough. So tough in fact that many higher education leaders assumed students would be happy to be invited back on campus. Instead, what they got were empty classrooms and frustrated students demanding more remote learning opportunities – all while facing facilities maintenance costs and funding issues tied to in-person attendance. It’s uncharted territory, so there are bound to be bumps in the road. Students and educators alike deserve some grace. There are lessons to be learned for all.

Do College Students Need to Go Back to Campus? Research Says Maybe.

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