How (and Whether) to Balance Online and On-Ground Enrollment

Some on-ground institutions are close to 50 percent online enrollment. But how important is the proportion?

December 5, 2018
 
Istockphoto.com/Vladimir Cetinski

Last month at the Educause conference in Denver, administrators from several institutions said they are either striving for or are about to reach a key milestone: 50 percent of their total enrollment coming from online students. For institutions primarily known for brick-and-mortar offerings, that can seem like an unexpected, even audacious goal.

Enrollment growth is among the top goals at many institutions, large numbers of which view online programs and courses as key features in driving such growth, especially at a time when enrollment of traditional students is flat or falling in many regions of the country. In some cases, the proportion of online and face-to-face students can serve as an important discussion point when strategizing how to develop capacity and attract more students.

For the University of Texas at Arlington, 50-50 has to be on administrators’ minds, even if it’s not the exact goal they’re trying to reach, according to Troy Johnson, the institution’s vice president for enrollment management. The Texas Legislature has compelled the state’s public institutions to ensure that by 2030, 60 percent of the state’s population will have at least a postsecondary degree or certificate.

“That cannot happen through high school students,” Johnson said. “It’ll be 25- to 36-year-olds by 2030.” Many of those adult students will be served through online or blended learning options.

Erin Morgan, the university's assistant vice president of IT administration, said during a panel at Educause that internal conversations have centered around reaching 50,000 online and an equal number on-ground by 2025. If the institution hits that target, it will need to add 20,000 on-ground students and more than 30,000 full-time online students, according to Johnson.

The university already has some technical infrastructure in place for the expansion. Other challenges include financial aid -- the online team will have to figure out when students who mix full-semester online courses with shorter-term offerings ought to receive their financial aid disbursement. Johnson sounds intimidated, if not defeated, by the prospect.

“We need to solve it, and we need to make it easy for students to take these courses, to get the financial aid they need and to complete,” Johnson said. “But they’re not trivial challenges.”

While the proportion of online and face-to-face students can drive conversation, it may not be as meaningful in terms of understanding the character of an institution or the shape of its learning offerings.

“The 50 percent thing may be an interesting number, but it has no significance at all in an academic context,” said Joel Hartman, vice president for information technologies and resources at the University of Central Florida.

Hartman’s institution is on the precipice of a 50-50 split. Last academic year, the university saw 44 percent of its student credit-hour enrollment in online modalities, and in recent years that number has been increasing steadily by 2 percent each year. At that pace, the institution will be half online by 2021.

Online education has helped the university serve 25,000 more students than could have enrolled in its face-to-face programs, according to Hartman. Offering a greater percentage of courses online also reduces the need for classroom space, which is at a major premium at Central Florida. The institution has been “40 percent short of classroom space for 25 years,” according to Hartman, and also lacking funds for additional brick-and-mortar investment.

Institutions staring down the barrel of a shift in the balance might look to the Denver-based private Regis University for guidance. Approximately 48 percent of its students are enrolled in fully online programs. According to Cate Clark, the institution’s associate dean of admissions, administrators don’t spend much time thinking about the proper percentage of online and face-to-face students. Rather, they’ve invested heavily in ensuring that students have as many options as possible.

The university offers 23 undergraduate online programs and 20 graduate online programs. Regis doesn’t count the number of students who blend face-to-face and online classes, but Clark believes the figure is substantial.

“When we market our programs, we always like to mention online, accelerated and hybrid options so that students recognize they have a choice,” Clark said.

Other institutions also use different metrics when deciding where to invest. Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana is one of the largest online education providers in the country, with slightly more than a third of its enrollments coming from students at a distance. The institution has largely shied away from thinking about the proportion of online and face-to-face students when making growth decisions, according to Kara Monroe, Ivy Tech’s provost and senior vice president.

“We are looking at enrollment from the standpoint of student success, rather than necessarily the method of delivery,” Monroe said. “In some areas that might mean we scale up online learning, and in some areas that may mean that we scale back.”

Monroe regards institutions striving for a 50-50 split with some trepidation. At a certain point, she said institutions might end up competing for tiny slices of the online student pie.

“I just don’t know how much potential growth there is for all institutions to get into this game,” Monroe said. “At some point you saturate the market and it’s noise for the students.”

Numbers are important, but looking at them in isolation won’t lead to high-quality online programs, according to Monroe. “This really is a reimagining of your institution,” she said.

While Hartman doesn’t plan on evolving Central Florida to serve hundreds of thousands of online students, “it’s hypothetically possible,” he said. His team is not yet at the point of constraining online growth.

“The State of Florida did not put a large university in Orlando to turn students away,” Hartman said.

Growth without limits comes at a cost, though. Even though online education reduces the need for classrooms, the university still needs to provide office space to full-time and adjunct instructors who teach online. Plans to seek funding for additional buildings at Central Florida are in the works, Hartman said.

Regis isn’t growing at an unregulated clip, either. Administrators have capped online course capacity at 24 students in order to prevent class sizes from ballooning. There’s also a practical matter to consider -- in a relatively healthy job market, quality online instructors are difficult to come by, according to Clark.

While the 50-50 ratio may not be an explicit goal for all, it does point to some key issues facing online providers, said Russ Poulin, director of policy for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. If the federal government believes more than 50 percent of an institution’s enrollments come from “correspondence study” and that faculty oversight is lacking, it can revoke the entire institution’s eligibility for federal aid.

“It becomes of critical importance for institutions approaching that threshold to assure that their courses are meeting the Department of Education's recommendations,” Poulin said.

As face-to-face institutions become more focused online, they also risk compromising “institutional culture” and creating a sense that the institution has two distinct arms that don’t relate much to each other, Poulin said.

“Those without strong programs and a clear understanding of their target market will have trouble sustaining enrollment levels,” Poulin said.

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