Geography Emerges in Distance Ed

New study challenges conventional wisdom that where you live doesn't matter when you are enrolled online.
November 28, 2007

If it's been possible so far to paint a generalized picture of the online student -- an adult starting a second career, for example, enrolled in a large institution such as the University of Phoenix -- that's only because the market for distance education hasn't fully matured. Now, a new report suggests, that process is well underway.

As demand shifts to different age groups and students looking for specific types of programs, the era of "one size fits all" is coming to an end, argues a study by Eduventures, a research firm that provides advice and consulting services to its members in the online higher education market. Most notably, the idea that learning online renders geography irrelevant is challenged by trends in survey data.

Two-thirds of the 2,033 representative survey respondents -- all interested in online education over the next several years -- preferred to enroll in online programs located in their state, but only 47 percent had done so; the rest were enrolled in institutions located elsewhere. The report points to that finding as a signal that better-tailored programs and improved marketing could exploit a market demand for localized online education that hasn't entirely been filled. Although Eduventures makes its full reports available only to paying members, charts provided to Inside Higher Ed point to a correlation between living in larger communities and a desire for online providers that are based locally.

The importance of geography is already clear in regulation. As an example, said Richard Garrett, a senior analyst at Eduventures and the author of the report, students in four states (Wisconsin, Nevada, Tennessee and Arizona) trigger "state licensure" even if they enroll in an out-of-state institution. There is also a gap between the expected jurisdiction of online colleges, he said, and the actual enforcement of the regulations.

As a result, it's often difficult to separate the number of students within a particular state who are enrolled in online programs from those who are enrolled in a particular institution. Arizona, for instance, would register an unusually high enrollment because of the University of Phoenix, which serves students from across the country.

“I think the average school will primarily use online to serve the local population,” Garrett said in an interview.

But how will they serve their students (or their customers)? With a maturing market whose growth continues but at a slower pace, that's potentially an open question. With competing online providers by definition equally available to prospective students, one possible direction is increasing specialization and tailoring programs to niche demands. Or, as Garrett suggested, colleges could concentrate on serving their local communities. Either way, it's time to abandon the notion that "there is only one version of online,” he said, and for institutions to adapt their individual missions to craft their "own version of online."

And while online education develops, the preferences of students are also up for grabs. While the greatest demand for 100-percent online education remains among people in middle age, the report found more growth among "traditional" students aged 18-24 (who make up the lion's share of all students but only about 10 percent of online learners) and those over 55. At the same time, those who are not immediately receptive to distance education might not have any experience with online learning to begin with, Garrett said.

The following table tracks the preferences of 2,000 prospective postsecondary students for education that is entirely online:

Changes in Demand for Online Learning

Age Group June 2006 September 2007
18-24 8.7% 10.4%
25-34 18.7% 17.7%
35-44 22.4% 23.5%
45-54 24.2% 23.2%
55-64 17.5% 21.1%
65+ 8.0% 9.7%

A reluctance among potential students to embrace the concept of online education could also come from the way it's often been marketed: as a convenience to busy adult learners with families and jobs. Much of the growth of online learning comes from people for whom the option is merely their second preference. If institutions start to move away from that definition of themselves, Garrett said, they might become more open to different kinds of students -- for example, younger students who have fewer qualms about learning online.

"The online market is diverse; the online student is increasingly diverse," he said.


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