(Early) Signs of (Modest) Online Saturation

Does a small decline in the share of all academic programs that are delivered at a distance suggest that online has peaked?

January 9, 2019
 

Were there enough caveats in that headline?

Bold pronouncements about trends in the fast-moving, and somewhat data-poor, landscape of online learning should be approached with great skepticism -- which is why this isn't one.

What it is is a high-level view of some data in an analysis published last month by Public Insight, which collects and makes available public data in accessible formats. The blog post by the company's CEO, Dan Quigg, carried the provocative title of "Has Distance Education Hit Its Peak?" -- a question inspired by federal data showing that the proportion of all academic programs that were offered via distance education declined to 10.5 percent in 2016 from 10.8 percent in 2017.

It was the first such decline since the federal government's main higher education database, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, began collecting data on online education in 2013.

"It appears that the original lure of distance education seems to have worn off somewhat and whatever works, works well," Quigg wrote. "Whatever is not working is being phased out."

Quigg admits he is no expert on online education, and that his analysis is at a surface level, prompted by one data point surfaced from among the millions his company processes.

But the assertion sparked our curiosity here at "Inside Digital Learning," especially in the face of other federal data showing that online enrollments continue to grow. So we did a bit more analysis on the data Quigg produced and asked a couple of people better versed in online education for their takes on the question.

Robert G. Atkins, chief executive officer of Gray Associates, which helps colleges analyze which academic programs to offer (and not to offer), characterized the small size of the decline -- barely more than 1 percent -- as too minute to be "very meaningful."

He did some further analysis and found that 18 percent of the nearly 7,000 colleges listed in IPEDS had shown a decrease in the total number of overall academic programs, with an average of decline of about five programs. (A total of 31 percent of institutions added programs, on average about four.) Half made no change.

About a third of the 18 percent of colleges that showed declines had shut their doors, leading Atkins to argue that much of the decline suggested in Quigg's blog post could be attributed to "the bankruptcy of some of the [for-profit colleges] … In my view, it is likely these were caused more by regulatory fallout than market issues," he added.

So does Atkins think there is no validity to Quigg's hypothesis that the new data suggest some saturation of higher education?

Not necessarily. Since online enrollments over all are continuing to grow, "people may be cutting dumb stuff that never could have worked, regardless of saturation."

Atkins also noted that "saturation may be more observable at the program level" than over all. "Nursing (R.N. to B.S.N.) and business are finally starting to decline, and they are two of the largest programs in the U.S.," he said.

In that vein, "Inside Digital Learning" did a bit of additional program-level analysis of the numbers Quigg shared.

Indeed, of the academic programs (based on federal classification codes) with the largest number of online offerings (see list below), several of them -- general business administration, criminal justice, general business/commerce, general marketing, human resources management, information technology -- saw sizable decreases in the proportion of all such postsecondary programs that are offered online. (Increasing numbers of programs in some of these fields are being offered by noncollege providers such as Google, boot camps and the like -- potentially adding to the competition faced by campus programs.)

Does that necessarily mean that institutions are deciding there are too many online programs being offered in those fields? We don't have enough data to answer that question.

But the idea that certain disciplines -- or certain regions, or some disciplines in certain regions -- are reaching some degree of saturation of online programs is a provocative (and important) one. And one that would benefit from some more analysis.

Please offer your thoughts, in the comments below or down the road.

  Online Programs, 2017 Proportion of All Programs That Are Online, 2017 Proportion of All Programs That Are Online, 2016 Change, 2016 to 2017
Business Administration and Management, General 1,797 25.8% 27.2% -1.37%
Registered Nursing/Registered Nurse 683 19.5% 18.6% 0.93%
Liberal Arts and Sciences/Liberal Studies 575 21.1% 21.8% -0.76%
Accounting 558 17.1% 18.1% -1.00%
Health/Health Care Administration/Management 474 31.5% 32.5% -1.02%
Criminal Justice/Safety Studies 448 24.0% 25.8% -1.81%
Business/Commerce, General 438 22.2% 23.8% -1.57%
Educational Leadership and Administration, General 408 23.3% 22.1% 1.21%
Criminal Justice/Law Enforcement Administration 399 25.7% 26.5% -0.79%
General Studies 387 24.1% 24.5% -0.37%
Accounting Technology/
Technician and Bookkeeping
352 19.6% 21.3% -1.68%
Psychology, General 328 12.4% 12.0% 0.39%
Marketing/Marketing Management, General 315 17.8% 20.3% -2.54%
Human Resources Management/Personnel Administration, General 314 25.3% 30.1% -4.74%
Information Technology 289 19.9% 23.1% -3.11%
Early Childhood Education and Teaching 288 14.3% 14.2% 0.09%
Organizational Leadership 264 34.0% 35.0% -1.01%
Computer and Information Sciences, General 261 13.9% 13.4% 0.53%
Educational/Instructional Technology 253 34.7% 34.0% 0.68%
Computer and Information Systems Security/Information Assurance 247 21.4% 25.9% -4.43%

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