Counting Online Students

Online enrollments climbed 11 percent from 2012 to 2015, with private nonprofit colleges seeing the biggest gains and for-profits losing ground.

April 12, 2017
 
Russ Poulin

NEW ORLEANS -- A report released last week shows that while campus enrollments declined 3.2 percent from fall 2012 to fall 2015, distance education enrollments rose 11 percent. Private nonprofit institutions saw the biggest jump in online enrollments – 40 percent – during that time period.

Russ Poulin, director of policy and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Education Technology, unveiled the new Digital Learning Compass’s preliminary results at the OLC Innovate conference here. He said private nonprofits posted the largest percentage gains because in 2012 they enrolled smaller numbers of online students than publics and for-profits did.

The Digital Learning Compass analyzed distance education enrollment data reported by public, nonprofit and for-profit institutions in the fall 2015, the latest federal IPEDS data available. It also compared the fall 2015 data with fall 2012 data, the first time IPEDS collected distance learning data. The full report is expected to be released May 1.

The Digital Learning Compass is being produced by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, Babson Survey Research Group and e-Literate. Poulin said the groups were producing similar reports, and decided to form a partnership to analyze that data together. The new report is sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium, Pearson Education and Tyton Partners, an education consultancy. 

As reported in Inside Digital Learning last week, total online enrollments still are growing, but not at the explosive pace they once were -- and one expert said he thinks enrollments have plateaued.

Report Highlights

According to the Digital Learning Compass, 30 percent of all students enrolled in college took at least one online class in fall 2015; 2.9 million students took all courses online and 3.1 million took at least one class online. “One in seven students took all their courses at a distance, and almost one in three students took at least one distance course that term,” Poulin said.

Not surprisingly, public institutions had the most distance learners enrolled – 68 percent of the total – in fall 2015. Private nonprofits had 18 percent of all students enrolled in online courses and for-profits had 14 percent. 

While campus enrollments declined 3.2 percent, down 662,076 students, from fall 2012 to fall 2015, distance education enrollments grew 11 percent, up 596,699, Poulin said. As noted, private nonprofit colleges saw a 40 percent increase in online enrollments during that period, and public institutions had 13.4 percent growth.

During the same period, for-profit online enrollments dropped 18 percent. Poulin said the retrenchment of for-profits, which have been taking a beating from regulators, caused a drain on the total distance learning enrollments.

When one conference attendee suggested that all for-profits were bad, two others, Sharon Goldstein from Berkeley College and Elizabeth Johnson from Post University, said their for-profit institutions’ enrollments are not declining, and that their smaller, well-positioned programs adeptly serve the needs of their online students.

“The big players are the ones who are doing the wrong things, like Corinthian and the University of Phoenix, so their enrollments are shrinking,” said Goldstein, Berkeley College’s campus operating officer.

Poulin agreed that the giant for-profits have had the biggest online enrollment declines, adding: “The history is that all of you have been painted into the same picture.” 

Defining Distance Education

Poulin and others attending the OLC session said that the IPEDS distance education definition needs to be revised, and that the federal government and institutions there should embrace a common national standard. 

The IPEDS definition is 10 years old, Poulin said, and it states that a student must be taking nearly 100 percent of classes online to be considered a distance learner. But, he added, colleges and universities have their own interpretation of what distance learning is.

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