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Institutions Must Adapt to the Needs of Five Distinct Groups Within the Online Education Population

Schools That Reach Emerging Segments of Students and Parents Will Tap Into New Sources of Growth and Innovation, New BCG Research Finds

BOSTON, MA -- (Marketwired) -- 06/18/14 -- A survey of more than 3,000 U.S. students and parents conducted by The Boston Consulting Group's Center for Consumer and Customer Insight has identified five distinct segments of the online education population. The report, The Five Faces of Online Education: What Students and Parents Want, is being released today and is the latest in BCG's Consumer Sentiment series. The survey shows that schools must vary their approaches in order to best reach the following five segments:

  • True Believers. These students take the majority or all of their classes online. This population will be familiar as the original group that online education grew to serve.
  • Online Rejecters. These students have tried online courses, but they have decided not to take more in the future because they see problems with the quality, outcomes, and reputation of online programs.
  • Experience Seekers. These students uniquely emphasize the experiential, social, and emotional benefits of education. To them, it does not matter greatly which form their education takes, so long as they achieve their goal of a degree for personal and social advancement.
  • Money Mavens. Members of this segment are primarily motivated by the financial outcomes of an education. They view an online education much more as a transaction than as an experience.
  • Open Minds. This segment will become True Believers if the experience of online learning meets their high standards and offers benefits beyond that of traditional classrooms.

"The needs of the current mix of students are different from those of the past, driven by broader generational, digital, and marketing trends," said Christine Barton, a partner and coauthor of the report. Consider, for example, the overall finding that students rank academic advising ahead of faculty and teaching quality for the improved online education experience of the future. "What worked for online education in the past won't work in the future, and what will work in the future, won't work the same way for all institutions," says Barton.

Despite the differences among the segments, the survey also shows that universal attitudes exist. More than 60 percent of respondents who have taken an online or blended course believe the following: online offerings can improve the quality of education; online courses and degrees are gaining in importance as a part of the criteria for choosing an educational institution; and the traditional classroom experience benefits from online instruction.

Students are combining the best of online, blended (a mix of online and in-person instruction), and traditional academic settings into a new learning experience. In fact, BCG's survey suggests that the proportion of students currently taking at least one blended course is more than 25 percent.

At the same time, students are demanding much more from online education than in the past. All types of students surveyed wanted greater real-time interactivity and contact with faculty, advisors, and other students. And parents in particular are not sold on online-only degree programs: They were significantly more likely to withhold financial support for a child pursuing a fully online degree than for a traditional or a hybrid degree that mixes online and traditional classes.

Ultimately, BCG's survey found that online education has reached the mainstream: 67 percent of secondary and postsecondary students report experiencing online education to some degree. (The survey defines those with online education experience as students who have taken an online or blended course and parents whose children have taken an online course.) In addition, the survey confirmed other estimates that the proportion of students currently taking at least one online course stands at 30 percent of postsecondary students, and that 16 percent of postsecondary students are currently learning primarily through online courses.

"Growth in the future will come from altogether different sources than in the past," said Allison Bailey, a senior partner and coauthor of the report. "Successful institutions will understand how groups of students differ, which segments to target for growth and innovation, and how to prioritize investments, operations, and marketing messages to meet more needs with fewer resources."

A copy of the report can be downloaded at To arrange an interview with one of the authors or receive a copy of the report, please contact Patrick Riccards on +1 703 298 8283 or [email protected].

About The Boston Consulting Group
The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a global management consulting firm and the world's leading advisor on business strategy. We partner with clients from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors in all regions to identify their highest-value opportunities, address their most critical challenges, and transform their enterprises. Our customized approach combines deep insight into the dynamics of companies and markets with close collaboration at all levels of the client organization. This ensures that our clients achieve sustainable competitive advantage, build more capable organizations, and secure lasting results. Founded in 1963, BCG is a private company with 81 offices in 45 countries. For more information, please visit

About BCG's Center for Consumer and Customer Insight
The Boston Consulting Group's Center for Consumer and Customer Insight (CCCI) applies a unique, integrated approach that combines quantitative, qualitative, and observational consumer research with a deep understanding of business strategy and competitive dynamics. The center works closely with BCG's various practices to translate its insights into actionable strategies that lead to tangible economic impact for our clients. In the course of its work, the center has amassed a rich set of proprietary data on consumers from around the world, in both emerging and developed markets. The CCCI is sponsored by BCG's Marketing and Sales and Global Advantage practices. For more information, please visit

About features the latest thinking from BCG experts as well as from CEOs, academics, and other leaders. It covers issues at the top of senior management's agenda. It also provides unprecedented access to BCG's extensive archive of thought leadership stretching back 50 years to the days of Bruce Henderson, the firm's founder and one of the architects of modern management consulting. All of our content -- including videos, podcasts, commentaries, and reports -- can be accessed by PC, mobile, iPad, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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