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Online enrollment at community colleges continued to rise in 2011, but at a slower pace than in years past, according to a new study by the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges.

To be sure, the 8.2 percent growth in 2011 (compared with 9 percent in 2010 and more than 20 percent a few years ago) is significant – especially when contrasted with nearly flat enrollment in traditional classrooms.

But after years of unbridled growth, the council's chair, Fred Lokken, sees the lower numbers as a “pause” while community colleges regroup and attempt to cope with budget cuts and address shortcomings of their programs.

The study’s biggest surprise, Lokken said, is that some colleges are cutting back on student services for distance students. Institutions providing access to online counseling and orientation dropped more than 10 percentage points to 49 and 63 percent respectively, in this year’s study. Lokken attributes that partly to budget cuts, partly to staff turnover and partly to variations in the study’s sample of 143 institutions.

Administrators said providing adequate student services was their biggest challenge this year. (It ranked third last year.) Lokken has seen the issue firsthand at Truckee Meadows Community College in Nevada, where he is an associate dean. Students at his college recently lost access to live chats with employees in student services.

While growth slows, online experts are seeking solutions to longstanding problems in distance education. For years, administrators have highlighted many of the same concerns about student and faculty preparation for online learning.

Workload issues and adequate training were cited by administrators as first and second among the most pressing challenges for faculty each of the last six years. For students, the biggest challenges have consistently been in orientation programs and in learning assessment. The persistence of those concerns has encouraged many community colleges to reflect and look for improvements, Lokken said.

“All of these things have encouraged us to slow down the growth,” he said. “We are making a conscious decision to say we are not offering as many sections because we have to do a better job of training our faculty, a better job of preparing our students.”

Still, Lokken said, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Retention rates are either comparable or better for online classes than traditional ones at 44 percent of colleges, and students remain eager to sign up for digital sections. Sixty-two percent of colleges said demand for online classes outpaces their offerings.

Next year’s study will likely see similar levels of growth and cutbacks in service, Lokken said, as colleges continue to adjust to smaller budgets.

While distance education has succeeded in becoming a key part of most community colleges, that has also exposed it to the same budget cuts seen in other parts of an institution. Dropoffs in student services for online education are an example of that, Lokken said. “I think it does indicate that most community college programs continue to be grossly underfunded and understaffed,” he said.

But in the long term, he’s confident that online enrollment will become the norm at two-year colleges.

“We see online education as the great tool of the 21st century,” Lokken said. “I think it will ultimately become the most common way in which students attend” community college.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • Students over 26 are as likely to enroll in online courses as those ages 18-25.
  • More than 60 percent of online community college students are women.
  • For years, administrators listed the need for more support staff as their most pressing problem. This year, that category was cited as the seventh-most pressing concern.
  • While the economic downturn and the budget cuts it triggered have presented challenges for online programs, 22 percent of administrators cited the downturn as a reason for increasing online enrollment.

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