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Researchers who study online education tend to believe that the staggering growth in enrollments seen over the past several years can't continue apace forever. According to a study released Wednesday, they'll have to wait at least another year for the predicted flattening.

In fall 2007, the study reports, some 3.94 million students enrolled in at least one online course, an increase of 12.9 percent over the previous year. That falls between the 9.7 percent growth for fall 2006 and the 19.7 compound annual rate since fall 2002. In comparison, total student enrollments increased 1.2 percent in the year leading up to last fall, while the compound annual rate for all enrollments since 2002 was 1.6 percent.

"Clearly there will be a limit on the growth of online enrollments; however the current data show that this limit has not yet been reached, as double-digit growth rates continue for yet another year," says the report, part of an annual survey by the Sloan Consortium, which tracks online learning trends.

And the growth might continue thanks to a stagnating economy, according to most of the survey's respondents, which would align with previous experience in which a deteriorating job market leads to more enrollments. The trend also reinforces reports earlier this year that community colleges, especially, were encouraging students to take courses online to save on commuting costs.

The study, "Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008," was produced with the College Board and the Babson Survey Research Group at Babson College. The results were compiled from an annual College Board survey with over 2,500 responses, a response rate of 57.4 percent.

"I'm continually surprised that the growth doesn't seem to slow down or stop," said Jeff Seaman, the report's co-author and co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group. He said most academic leaders believe that the correlation between economic troubles and higher enrollments is carrying over into online education.

Earlier in the year, when the price of a barrel of oil hovered around or above the $120 mark, a number of colleges reported shifting their course schedules or encouraging students to take courses on the Internet as a way to save money. While the survey's questions about the impact of the economy spanned the past month or so -- when prices were wobbling back down to 2007 levels -- they still capture some of that imperative, Seaman said.

Illustrating the rapid growth of enrollments over the past decade, over a fifth of all American students in higher education took at least one online course in fall 2007. At the same time, the report found what may be a plateau in the percentage of institutions that see online education as critical to their long-term strategy:

Percentage of Institutions That Say Online Education Is 'Critical' to Long-Term Goals

  Fall 2002 Fall 2003 Fall 2004 Fall 2005 Fall 2006 Fall 2007
Agree 48.8 53.5 56.0 58.4 59.1 58.0
Neutral 38.1 33.7 30.9 27.4 27.4 27.0
Disagree 13.1 12.9 13.1 14.2 13.5 15.0

Source: "Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008"

In fall 2007, the institutions that most strongly agreed that online education is "critical" were public universities (70.7 percent), compared with four-year colleges (35.4 percent). For two-year colleges, the figure was 66.5 percent.

With a consensus emerging about the importance and continued growth of online education, the report highlighted what institutions (almost 70 percent of them) see as an inevitable byproduct: competition. Even students who take online courses at their own traditional campuses don't have to enroll at their home institutions anymore; it's just as easy to sign up for a class based halfway across the world.

"As discussed elsewhere, this competition may be leading schools to increase their geographic reach and to concentrate on non-degree, non-traditional students," the report says.

Finally, the study looked at the prevalence of courses online by discipline and found no significant barriers or differences -- except one. "We found that is not the case with the single exception of engineering," Seaman said.

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