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Without online education, college and university enrollments would be declining even more.

That is evident in the latest report from the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, published Tuesday. It shows that while overall postsecondary enrollment dropped by almost 90,000 students, nearly half a percentage point, from fall 2016 to fall 2017 -- confirming data previously published by the National Student Clearinghouse -- the number of all students who took at least some of their courses online grew by more than 350,000, a healthy 5.7 percent.

The proportion of all students who were enrolled exclusively online grew to 15.4 percent (up from 14.7 percent in 2016), or about one in six students. The share of all students who mixed online and in-person courses grew slightly faster, to 17.6 percent in 2017 from 16.4 percent in 2016. And the proportion of all students who took at least one course online grew to 33.1 percent, from 31.1 percent in 2016.

That last data point represents a steady march in the normalization of online learning, as the proportion of all enrolled students who had studied online stood under a quarter in 2012. But while fans of online learning are likely to be heartened by that slow but sure rise in acceptance, the pure increase in online enrollments -- at a time of overall dips in postsecondary attendance -- may be just as noteworthy.

The Education Department data show that the number of students enrolled in a college or university that is eligible for federal financial aid dipped to 20,135,159 last fall, from 20,224,069 in fall 2016. That's a decline of 0.44 percent.

The dip was driven by sizable decreases at for-profit and community colleges, as is common when economic conditions are improving and more, and better, jobs are available, leading adults to choose them over pursuing their educations. Enrollments grew modestly, meanwhile, at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges, and graduate enrollments edged up, too.

All Enrollments and Online Enrollments, 2016 and 2017

  2016 % of 2016 Total 2017 % of 2017 Total % Change, 2016-17
All Students 20,224,069   20,135,159   -0.44%
Enrolled Exclusively Online 2,974,836 14.71% 3,104,879 15.42% 4.19%
Enrolled in Some Online Courses 3,325,750 16.44% 3,552,581 17.64% 6.38%
Enrolled in No Online Courses 13,923,483 68.85% 13,477,699 66.94% -3.31%

For-profit higher education was the first sector of colleges to extensively experiment with and embrace online largely, and online students continue to make up a sizable portion of their enrollments -- almost half, as seen in the table below.

But most of the growth in online enrollments is occurring in the sectors playing catch-up. Public and private nonprofit colleges and universities as a group saw about a two-percentage-point increase in the proportion of all students who were studying online between 2016 and 2017, an accelerating pace.

  2016 % of 2016 Total 2017 % of 2017 Total % Change, 2016 to 2017
Public Institutions          
All Students 14,692,988   14,669,554   -0.16%
Enrolled Exclusively Online 1,546,287 10.52% 1,657,959 11.30% 7.22%
Enrolled in Some Online Courses 2,830,891 19.27% 3,034,261 20.68% 7.18%
Enrolled in No Online Courses 10,315,810 70.21% 9,977,334 68.01% -3.28%
Private Nonprofit Institutions        
All Students 4,095,815   4,123,164   0.67%
Enrolled Exclusively Online 728,620 17.79% 788,439 19.12% 8.21%
Enrolled in Some Online Courses 368,508 9.00% 392,794 9.53% 6.59%
Enrolled in No Online Courses 2,998,687 73.21% 2,941,931 71.35% -1.89%
For-Profit Institutions          
All Students 1,435,266   1,342,441   -6.47%
Enrolled Exclusively Online 699,929 48.77% 658,481 49.05% -5.92%
Enrolled in Some Online Courses 126,351 8.80% 125,526 9.35% -0.65%
Enrolled in No Online Courses 608,986 42.43% 558,434 41.60%


The differences in online enrollment patterns between public and private nonprofit are striking, though.

At public institutions, the number of students studying partially but not fully online is about twice as large as the number studying entirely online -- nearly three million versus 1.5 million. Many of those students are presumably using online courses to supplement their in-person course schedules, out of convenience and preference.

But at private nonprofit colleges, the pattern is reversed, with those studying exclusively online about doubling the number of those studying only partially online. That is perhaps attributable to the large number of students who are enrolled in a handful of private nonprofit institutions with very large online operations, such as Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University and Liberty University.

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