Growth in Distance Learning Outpaces Total Enrollment Growth

by Lynn Wallis

October 17, 2018

It is well known that a significant number of college students are enrolling in online or distance education – never having to attend face-to-face classes. These students are comfortable communicating through technology and managing their learning without having to show up at a particular place and time. These students are often older with careers and families and want more control over their life and education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the nation, distance education is a form of education that uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) latest data shows that 70.7 percent of all public degree-granting institutions have some distance learning courses. Since 2003, the number of students taking at least one online course has grown at a rate greater than that of the overall higher education student body. Since 2009 though, there have been steady year-to-year declines in the rate of growth of online courses with an average growth rate of 3.7 percent.

Perspective on Distance Learning

How has online learning changed over time? According to an annual survey by Babson Survey Research Group, Grade Increase: Tracking Online Education in the United States, distance learning student enrollments increased for the fourteenth straight year in 2016. More than 30 percent of higher education students in 2016 took at least one distance-education course. The year-to-year increase in the number of distance education students was the lowest recorded over the last 14 years, but continued to exceed overall growth in higher education enrollment. According to the co-author, Julia Seaman, research director of the Babson Survey Research Group, “The growth of distance enrollments has been relentless. They have gone up when the economy was expanding, when the economy was shrinking, when overall enrollments were growing, and now when overall enrollments are shrinking.” 

Demographics Affecting Postsecondary Enrollment Patterns

Older or non-traditional students are becoming a larger portion of college enrollment in the nation. An increasing number of older students choose online programs and classes that allow them to juggle work, life, and school.

The age distribution of students enrolled in postsecondary education in the nation is changing as increasing portions of traditional students (14-24 years) attend college. It is estimated that from 2015 to 2026, the total number of traditional students will increase by around 14.4 percent, adding almost 2.0 million students, while the total number of non-traditional students (25 years and older) will grow at a slower 8.2 percent, adding 664,000 students. By 2026, traditional students are expected to make up 61 percent of college enrollment.
Another enrollment trend to watch is the proportional change of part-time students to full-time students. The number of part-time students is expected to grow at a faster rate than the number of full-time students, according to NCES. National enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 15 percent from 1992 to 2002 and 32.7 percent from 2002 to 2014. The majority of growth during the last 12 years has been with full-time enrollment but that trend is expected to shift in the future as more and more students attend college part-time. Future projections from 2015 to 2026 show full-time enrollment growing by 12.3 percent and adding 1.5 million students while part-time enrollment is expected to increase at a faster rate of 14.9 percent, adding 1.2 million students.

Online Education in Oregon’s Public Universities

According to Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the annual number of students attending Oregon’s public universities has grown from 111,917 in 2007-08 to 131,323 in 2017-18, a growth rate of 17.3 percent. This growth in student enrollment has been surpassed by the growth in the number of students taking online courses.
The number of students taking at least one online course has grown by 183 percent – from 21,044 in 2007-08 to 59,583 in 2017-18. The number of university students taking only online classes also increased from 5,844 in 2007-08 (5.2%) to 17,757 (13.5%) in 2017-18. Conversely, the percentage of university students not taking any online courses has been declining from 85,029 (76.0%) in 2007-08 to 53,983 (41.1%) in 2017-18.

Online Education in Oregon’s Community Colleges

Oregon’s College Community student enrollment has fallen faster than online enrollment. Total student enrollment fell from 367,734 in 2007-08 to 272,440 in 2017-18 (-25.9%). During this same period, the number of students taking any online courses decreased from 101,162 to 84,159 (-16.8%).
Year-to-year change in community college student enrollment fell from a peak growth rate of 1.2 percent in 2009-10 to a decline of 3.1 percent in 2017-18.

The percentage of students taking any online courses increased from 27.5 percent in 2007-08 to 30.9 percent in 2017-18. During the last 11 academic years, the average year-to-year change in total enrollment was a loss of 2.9 percent, whereas the average change in students taking any online courses declined less, averaging a loss of 1.7 percent per year

Students and Online Education

An online student survey by The Learning House and Education Dynamics tracks students who are considering a fully online program, those currently enrolled in a fully online college program, and those who have graduated within the past year. The report summarizes trends in online student experiences and is titled, Online College Student 2018: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences Some key findings were:

  • Virtually every online college student owns a smartphone or tablet. The overwhelming majority of students use mobile devices not only to search for their online program of study (87%) but also to complete online coursework (67%).
  • Sixty percent of online college students have completed an online course or program prior to their most recent search for an online program. Eighty-six percent of online students believe the value of their degree equals or exceeds the cost they paid for it. For students who have experienced both in-person and virtual classrooms, 85 percent feel that learning online is as good or better than attending courses on campus.
  • As online learning has established itself as a valid learning medium, higher education is experimenting with the modality needed to tackle student debt and degree-completion problems that plague the sector. The good news is that students are on board with competency-based education (49% would consider), stackable certificates (43% very interested), and textbook-free courses (61% would consider).
  • Nearly 60 percent of online college students who had a choice between online and on-ground actively chose online learning. Online programs have built in many conveniences that on-ground programs often lack. Opportunities to take year-round courses (27%) and accelerated courses (20%) inform some online students’ decisions, while others take advantage of generous transfer policies.
Challenges Ahead

Distance education has made higher education more accessible – especially to working adults, caregivers, students with disabilities, and others who have schedules and responsibilities that are incompatible with attendance in traditional, face-to-face classroom instruction. Throughout the past 11 years, student enrollment in online courses continued to grow at a higher rate than overall student enrollment in colleges and universities. Some challenges remain, though, as outlined by the Instructional Technology Council (ITC) which is a non-profit organization that represents nearly 400 institutions offering distance education courses in the United States, Canada, and around the world. The challenges cited by ITC include:
  • Colleges need to offer better preparation for first-time online students so they will be ready to learn on day one.
  • The lack of computer and internet access for a portion of the population severely affects students’ ability to access online offerings.
  • Student retention in online courses tends to be 8 percentage points lower than that of face-to-face instruction, according to ITC. Online students need to be self-disciplined to succeed. Many students underestimate how much time online coursework requires and others fall behind due to responsibilities of work and/or families.


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