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Online enrolment in US continues to grow

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The total number of students on US college campuses dropped by nearly one million between 2012 and 2015
  • The decline arises from two underlying trends: decreasing total enrolment in US higher education and an increasing proportion of students who are pursuing their studies via distance learning
  • Total enrolment in online education in the US has grown consistently for the last 15 years

In a further indication of the growing footprint of online learning, a new study finds that more than one in four higher education students in the US took at least one distance education course in 2015.

In fact, total enrolment in online learning has gone up every year between 2012 and 2015, whereas total higher education enrolment in the US declined over the same period.

The Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017 is the first in a new series of reports expected from the Digital Learning Compass, a new research partnership between the Babson Survey Research Group, e-Literate, and WCET.

The report puts the total online enrolment in the US at just over six million students as of fall 2015. Nearly half of those students (2.9 million) were studying exclusively via distance delivery, with the balance taking some, but not all, of their courses online.

As the following chart reflects, most distance education students are following undergraduate courses.

Distance education enrolment in the US by level of study, 2012–2015. Source: Digital Learning Compass

As the chart also suggests, the proportion of American higher education students enrolled in distance learning has increased in each of the last three years, from 26% in 2012 to 27% in 2013, 28.3% in 2014, and 30% in 2015.

In contrast, total higher education enrolment in the US has fallen since 2012. A closer look at top-level enrolment trends reveals that the overall drop in student numbers – about 660,000 in total – was divided roughly equally between private for-profit institutions and public institutions. Enrolment in private not-for-profit institutions, meanwhile, increased slightly between 2012 and 2015.

Total enrolment in US higher education, 2012–2015. Source: Digital Learning Compass

As Digital Learning Compass also notes, the overall enrolment decline from 2012 was also uneven by level of programme: “Not all areas of higher education are feeling the same pinch. Graduate enrolments actually grew, showing a small 1.0% gain over the three-year period. Undergraduate enrolments at four-year institutions remained steady. The decline stems from undergraduate enrolments at two-year institutions, where there was a nearly 10% drop.”

In a broad sense, the report tells the tale of two contrasting trends: online enrolment is growing but against a backdrop of declining student numbers in US higher education. In other words, American institutions are now competing for a smaller pool of students, with a growing proportion of those students are taking their courses via distance delivery.

The year 2012 was an interesting turning point in both respects. Up to that point, total enrolment in the US grew consistently – by an average of nearly 3% – in each of the previous ten years. Also up to that point, online enrolment grew at an even faster clip as more and more institutions expanded their distance programming. That growth in distance education continued after 2012, albeit at a slower pace. The overall effect has been a gradual shift within US higher education so that a great proportion of students are pursuing their studies via distance learning.

“The overall higher education environment is changing,” said Jill Buban, senior director of research and innovation for project sponsor Online Learning Consortium. “The total pool of postsecondary students has been shrinking for each of the last three years. At the same time, the demographics are shifting to a student community primarily comprised of adult and other contemporary learners, for whom distance learning often provides the best path to a post-secondary education. As schools compete for students in this environment, distance learning programs become essential to their ability to succeed.”

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