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In fall 2013, one in every eight students enrolled at colleges and universities in the U.S. studied exclusively online. One in every four students took at least one online course.

Those and other findings, released this week in a three-part analysis Link will go live tonight -CSby the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), suggest distance education is more pervasive in higher education than previously imagined, and may help debunk some of the common myths surrounding the medium. While other reports have noted that distance education in fall 2013 posted its smallest year-over-year enrollment increase in more than a decade, a peek at the underlying numbers reveals shifting balances of power and examples of institutional success.

“The fact is when you look at the overall data, there is no significant growth, but when you look at the sectors, there are stories there,” said Terri Taylor Straut, a veteran of the distance education industry who conducted the analysis for WCET. The organization, a part of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, helps member institutions improve their online education programs.

Straut looked at data captured by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, the federal government’s higher education data collection program. The government first began asking colleges and universities about students enrolled in distance education courses in fall 2012, making the fall 2013 data the first point of comparison researchers can use to piece together trends from year-over-year numbers. 

“The thing that remains constant between the data last year and the data this year is while there’s this perception that for-profits are out to take over this whole marketplace, it’s just not true,” Straut said. Most of the fully online students, she said, are enrolling at their local public two- or four-year institutions.

In fact, the 856,933 students studying exclusively online at for-profit institutions in fall 2013 represented less than one-third, or 32 percent, of that entire group. Public institutions enrolled nearly half, or 48 percent, of the students taking all of their courses online.

Based on how the sectors grew and shrank from 2012 to 2013, public institutions could soon enroll half of all the students studying exclusively online. According to the analysis, for-profit enrollments fell by 8.3 percent year over year, while enrollments at public and private nonprofit institutions grew by 2.4 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively. At 0.2 percent, the overall growth in distance education enrollments masks those shifts.

Distance Education Enrollment Changes, 2012 to 2013
  Fall 2013 Fall 2012 % Change
Public 1,281,880 1,251,398 2.4
Private, non-profit 520,390 473,941 8.9
Private, for-profit 856,933 928,087 -8.3
Total 2,659,203 2,653,426 0.2

Out of curiosity, the researchers singled out two nonprofit institutions -- Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University -- whose billboards and advertisements have become common sights along highways or on television. Those campaigns appear to have paid off. From 2012 to 2013, SNHU’s online enrollments grew from 10,679 to 20,701 -- an increase of 94 percent. ASU also saw a bump of 34 percent.

“I’d love to know at what cost,” Straut said. “Billboards cost money, and TV ads cost money."

Straut suggested that the media's focus on the for-profit sector of higher education may have created a false impression that most students pursuing an education online enroll at those institutions. “Over the last 20 years, there’s been a whole lot of hype, but the fact is, learners are going to look nearby before they decide they’re going to spend their money or use [federal financial aid] at a fully online program far away,” she said.

The same is true for international students, according to the analysis. While massive open online courses have found a market in students outside the U.S. willing to pay for credentials that complement their education, colleges and universities reported they only enrolled about 26,600 international students in fully online programs in fall 2013 -- about 1 percent of the 2.6 million students enrolled in such programs.

Russell Poulin, WCET’s director of policy and analysis, said the numbers -- and conversations he has had with educators based at institutions outside the U.S. -- indicate that skepticism about fully online education is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

“It is surprising that with all the talk about the ability that we could go out and enroll all these students... traditional distance education from U.S. colleges has made less of an impact in the international market than one would think it would be capable of doing,” Poulin said. “The idea of a fully distance course -- never mind a program -- is still something that has not gained full acceptance yet.”

Poulin and Straut acknowledged that data-reporting issues could still be causing some anomalies, and that the numbers from 2012 provide “a shaky base for comparison.” Last year, researchers found that some institutions were under- or overreporting several thousands of students to the federal government. Poulin said the data are “probably picking up the bulk of the trends.”

In an apparent improvement from the 2012 data, for example, about half as many public institutions in 2013 reported that they didn’t know where their fully online students resided. But there were also confusing examples of institutions that in 2012 knew where their distance education students were located and in 2013 moved them into the “unknown” category, Straut said.

“The systems haven’t caught up with the reporting requirements,” Straut said. “People don’t like to talk about that, because they want to believe that it’s good data.”

WCET published the first third of its analysis today. The remaining two parts will run in the coming days.

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