Growth in Distance Learning Outpaces Total Enrollment Growth

by Lynn Wallis

August 11, 2020

A significant number of college students choose to enroll 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 lives 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. Technologies used for instruction may include the following: Internet; one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcasts, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband line, fiber optics, satellite or wireless communication devices; audio conferencing; and videocassette, DVDs, and CD-ROMs.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) latest data shows that in the fall of 2018, more than 6.9 million students, or 35.3 percent of students in the nation, were enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. The private for-profit institutions had the highest level of students enrolled in distance education courses at 73 percent followed by public institutions at 34.1 percent.

Perspective on Distance Learning

What do students think of online learning? According to an annual survey by Wiley Education Services, 2020 Online College Students, Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences, 78 percent of online students who have learned in a face-to-face setting feel their online experience was the same or better than their classroom experience. Overall, 79 percent of those who completed their online degree agree or strongly agree that it was worth the cost.

Other key findings include:

  • More than half of students cite affordability as their most important factor when evaluating online programs.
  • Reputation was the second important factor for online college students when selecting school or program.
  • The ability to apply transfer credits toward a degree program was the third most important factor for online college students.
  • More than half of online students noted that if their online program were not available at their chosen school, they would look for a similar online program elsewhere.
Projections Anticipate Younger Student Population and More Part-Time Study

Younger students are becoming a larger portion of college enrollment in the nation. An increasing number of younger students choose online programs and classes that allow them to work at their own pace.

The age distribution of students enrolled in postsecondary education in the nation is changing toward an increasing portion of younger students (14-24 years). From 2015 to 2026, the total number of non-traditional students is projected to increase by 8.2 percent, adding 664,000 students, while the total number of younger students (14-25) is projected to grow at more than twice the rate at 16.8 percent, adding 1,991,000 students. By 2026, non-traditional students are expected to make up 39 percent of college enrollment while the number of younger students will make up 61 percent.
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. Enrollment of part-time students is expected to grow fastest. Future projections from 2015 to 2026 show full-time enrollment growing by 12.2 percent and adding 1.5 million students while part-time enrollment is expected to increase 14.9 percent, adding 1.2 million students.

Online Education in Oregon’s Public Universities

According to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the annual number of students attending Oregon’s public universities has grown from 115,959 in 2008-09 to 128,337 in 2018-19, or by 10.7 percent. This growth in student enrollment has only 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 151 percent – from 24,682 (21.3%) in 2008-09 to 61,995 (48.3%) in 2018-19. The number of university students taking only online classes also increased from 7,163 in 2008-09 (6.2%) to 18,241 (14.2%) in 2018-19. Conversely, the percentage of university students taking no online courses has been declining from 84,114 (72.5%) in 2008-09 to 48,101 (37.5%) in 2018-19.

Online Education in Oregon’s Community Colleges

Oregon’s Community College student enrollment has fallen faster than online enrollment. Total student enrollment fell from 369,259 in 2008-09 to 262,718 in 2018-19 (-28.8%). During this same period, the number of students taking any online courses increased from 65,000 to 65,630, or by 1 percent.
During the last 10 academic years, the average year-to-year change in total enrollment was a loss of 3.3 percent, whereas the average yearly change in students taking online courses was a slight increase of 0.2 percent.

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 Students 2019: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences. Some key findings include:
  • Online students believe they acquire the soft skills that employers desire. Critical thinking and problem solving (85% were the most improved skills cited, while teamwork (69%) and oral communication (62%) were the least improved.
  • The online population is complex. The student population includes learners from multiple generations and segments. About half of online college students are millennials (ages 28-38), about one-third are from Generation X (ages 39-54), and the remainder is split between baby boomers (ages 55-73) and Gen Zers (ages 18-22).  
  • In 2019, 67 percent of online college students were enrolling in school within 50 miles of their residence and 44 percent of those students lived within 25 miles of their school.
  • The majority of online college students at the undergraduate (51%) and graduate (70%) levels were employed full time, and 41 percent of all online students were parents.  
The Effects of COVID and Beyond

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 10 years, student enrollment in online courses continued to grow at a higher rate than overall student enrollment in colleges and universities.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic that began in March 2020, education has changed dramatically, with the distinctive rise of distance learning where teaching is carried out remotely and on digital platforms. According to an article by HMC Architects, Distance Learning in the Time of COVID-19, in order to fight COVID, a significant number of schools throughout the nation have closed and transitioned from on-campus learning to distance learning.

A growing number of colleges are now evaluating which courses can be taught successfully through online learning and this trend may lead to long lasting and/or permanent changes with improved online learning platforms and ways of teaching. This shift to distance education could also reduce some of the need for lecture space at college campuses with a shift to a non-classroom settings such as the library or testing center.

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