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Detailing Last Fall’s Online Enrollment Surge

Number of students studying exclusively or partially online ballooned in fall 2020, especially among undergraduates and at public universities.

September 16, 2021
 

It won't be clear for a good while whether and how much the last year's grand, unplanned experiment with remote learning has permanently altered the landscape for using technology to deliver college instruction. A first step, though, is getting good data on how patterns shifted during the last year -- and that is beginning to arrive.

New data from the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, and additional information from the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA), offer an initial picture of how the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped postsecondary enrollments patterns last fall.

They show -- likely surprising no one -- that many more students received all or part of their education in fall 2020 through what the federal agency calls "distance education courses." While colleges and universities enrolled 650,000 fewer students in fall 2020 than they did in fall 2019 (as Inside Higher Ed detailed Wednesday), roughly two-thirds of the remaining students were educated either wholly (44.7 percent) or partially (28 percent) virtually. About a quarter, 27 percent, were not enrolled in any remote education courses.

By contrast, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the 20 million students enrolled in fall 2019 took no online courses. Seventeen percent were enrolled entirely virtually, and 19 percent took at least one of their courses online.

The growth in online enrollments was particularly evident at the undergraduate level (where the number of students enrolled exclusively online grew by 367 percent) and at public four-year institutions, where the rates of growth were two to three times higher than at private nonprofit colleges and many times greater than at for-profit colleges.

The number of students taking at least some of their courses online actually decreased at two-year public institutions, largely a reflection of the overall decrease in enrollments at community colleges.

Affirmation, and Looking Ahead

More data on online enrollments came this week from NC-SARA, a membership organization that sets shared national standards for postsecondary distance education courses and programs that are offered across state lines. Its data cover students in all states except California (a big exception).

The organization offered an advance look ahead of the release of its full data set for fall 2020, which will be published next month.

The roughly 2,200 colleges and universities that participate in NC-SARA reported a 93 percent increase in the number of students enrolled exclusively online, to 5,825,723 from 3,016,944 in 2019. Institutions reporting through NC-SARA were only asked to report on students studying exclusively online.

NC-SARA also surveyed its member institutions about whether they expected to sustain their distance education offerings post-pandemic (whenever that might be). A majority said they expected to do so.

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Lori Williams, president and CEO of NC-SARA, said the survey was designed to gauge whether the increased offering of virtual learning was a "flash in the pan" or a more permanent shift.

Her conclusion based on the results: "Despite a lot of the complaints we saw, particularly from brick-and-mortar 18- to 23-year-olds, institutions seem to recognize that students are voicing their preference for more flexibility."

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