Rise in Distance Enrollments

Community colleges see more growth. Assessment of student learning emerges as a top issue for administrators of these programs.
April 6, 2009

PHOENIX -- Community colleges continue to see increases in distance education enrollments, according to a report released at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges here.

A national survey of colleges by the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliate of the community college group, found that distance enrollments grew 11.3 percent from fall 2006 to fall 2007, the most recent period for which full data are available. Last year, the survey found an increase of 18 percent over the previous year. Given several recent years of significant gains in distance enrollments, such increases "could not be sustained indefinitely," says the report. It also notes that the administrators who provided answers for the survey said that they faced resource constraints on expanding distance programs.

Indeed the top three challenges listed by distance education administrators in the survey, identical to last year's results, all related to resources needed to expand distance programs while keeping them at high quality: support staff for training and technical assistance, student services for distance students, and operating and equipment budgets.

Even if the rate of growth has slowed, the report notes that distance enrollments are increasing at a faster rate than are other enrollments. And in a further sign that distance enrollments are not likely to plateau any time soon, the study notes that 70 percent of respondents said that student demand for distance options at their institutions exceeds current offerings.

With enrollments rising, but at a slower rate, there are signs that community colleges may increasingly be focused on the student experience and completion rates. Officials ranked assessing student learning as the top challenge that relates to students, up from the third spot a year ago. As enrollments have increased, there has also been a drop in completion rates, with officials indicating an average completion rate of 65 percent, down from 72 percent a year before, but up from 50 percent six years ago.

The data in the survey continue to show that community colleges' distance courses are serving both traditional and non-traditional students. Of distance students, 52 percent are considered traditional, meaning that they are aged 18 to 25. Over time, distance students at community colleges appear to be getting younger, the report says. A few years ago, those proportions were reversed.

Many publishers and others have created packages of course materials for community colleges to use in distance offerings, but the survey found that 80 percent of colleges reported using their own materials, while 18 purchased from publishers and 2 percent used a license or another arrangements with another content provider. The most difficult classes to offer, as cited by the survey, have been constant in recent years: lab science, speech, fine arts, nursing, mathematics, industrial technology, foreign languages and computer hardware.

The survey also found that community colleges either have or soon plan to have a wide range of student services for distance students.

Status of Student Services for Distance Education at Community Colleges

Service Currently Offer Plan to Offer in Next Year Plan to Offer in Two or More Years No Plan to Offer
Audio/video streaming 72% 13% 8% 6%
Campus testing center for distance students 79% 3% 5% 12%
Dedicated Web site for distance program and students 84% 3% 7% 5%
Distance education-specific faculty training 93% 4% 1% 1%
Help desk and technical support for distance education faculty 93% 3% 3% 0%
Help desk and technical support for distance education students 89% 7% 2% 1%
Online admission to institution 82% 10% 3% 4%
Online counseling and advising services 67% 12% 12% 8%
Online information and application for financial aid 87% 6% 3% 2%
Online library services and resources 94% 3% 2% 0%
Online payment of tuition and fees 88% 6% 3% 2%
Online plagiarism evaluation 59% 13% 9% 18%
Online registration for courses 92% 4% 2% 1%
Online student course evaluation 86% 8% 4% 1%
Online student organization, Web site and services 56% 13% 12% 18%
Online student orientation for distance courses 71% 19% 5% 3%
Online textbook sales 82% 7% 3% 7%
Online tutoring assistance 60% 22% 7% 10%
Campus Web portal 61% 16% 16% 6%
Audio podcasting 62% 27% 4% 6%
Vodcasting 45% 30% 14% 9%


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