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The number of students nationwide enrolled exclusively in distance education nearly doubled from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, according to the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements’ (NC-SARA) annual data report released today.

The 93 percent surge in enrollment in exclusively distance education programs at 2,201 participating institutions across 49 states -- California does not take part -- did not surprise experts, who said that COVID-19 clearly fueled much of the increase. Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, a network of organizations focused on helping institutions use new technology to innovate teaching and learning, said that while valuable, the NC-SARA data would be more revealing if there was a way to disaggregate them.

“What I want to know is who’s online?” Williams said. “What I would expect is, if you did disaggregate that data, you’d see a lot more marginalized students online -- racially marginalized … [and] also marginalized in other ways as well.”

She said the NC-SARA findings reinforce the importance of “creating learning spaces that are high-quality in multiple modalities.”

Among the other findings in the report: 66.5 percent of total exclusively distance education enrollments were at public institutions. Private nonprofit institutions accounted for 23.4 percent of the total and private for-profit institutions for 10.1 percent. Exclusively distance education enrollments at public institutions in the fall of 2020 increased a whopping 144 percent.

NC-SARA president and CEO Lori Williams said she believes that, even when accounting for the pandemic, the data signal a potential long-term shift to online learning, particularly since the pandemic has brought new players into distance education who may now permanently embrace online offerings. She said many institutions surveyed told NC-SARA they “don’t anticipate going back to fully face-to-face. They will retain at least some distance education moving forward.”