Distance education on a roll in the USA

January 23, 2018 Tony Bates

Seaman, J.E., Allen, I.E., and Seaman, J. (2018) Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States Wellesley MA: The Babson Survey Research Group

Boy, does that guy Jeff Seaman keep busy! Hard on the heels of quarter-backing the national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education, here he is with colleagues producing an even more comprehensive update on online and distance education in the USA.

There are several things though that make this report different, both from the Canadian study and previous Babson Reports:

  • first, online enrolments are now placed firmly in the context of overall student enrolments in the USA. While overall enrolments in the US higher education system have slowly declined (by almost 4% between 2012 to 2016), online enrolments have grown by about 5% over the same period. In comparison online enrolments in Canada grew by 40% in universities and by 60% in two year colleges over the same five year period, while overall enrolments grew slightly (by around 2%).
  • There are now fewer students studying on campus than at any point since 2012 in the USA. There are now over a million fewer students coming to campus in 2016 than there were in 2012.

  • As of Fall 2016, there were 6,359,121 students taking at least one distance education course, comprising 31.6% of all higher education enrollments. So online and distance students have been shoring up student enrolments in the USA over the last five years.
  • 83% of distance students are taking undergraduate courses and 17% post-graduate courses.
  • There are wide variations between the different HE sectors in the USA, both in terms of overall enrollments, and also distance education enrollments. Overall enrollments grew modestly in the public and private not-for-profit institutions over the four years but declined dramatically in public two year colleges (down 14%) and even more so in the private, for profit sector (down 32% and 40% respectively for four year and two year colleges).
  • For-profit institutions have seen their total distance education enrollments decrease during these time periods. These changes of course occurred before the Trump election and reflect the impact of the Obama administration’s regulatory efforts. It will be interesting to see how things change if at all during the Trump administration.
  • The majority of distance education students in the USA (69%) are in public institutions.
  • Distance education is generally local. The vast majority (84%) of students taking exclusively distance courses enrolled at public institutions are located in the same state as the institution.
  • Distance education is not international in the USA: In Fall 2016, there were only 45,475 students located outside of the United States taking exclusively distance courses. This represents only 1.5% of students taking exclusively distance courses, and only 0.7% of all distance education students.
  • Students enrolled in distance education remain highly concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions. Almost half of distance education students are accounted for in just 5% of institutions: the 235 institutions that represent only 5.0% of the higher education universe command 47% (2,985,347) of the student distance enrollments. The top 47 institutions, representing only 1.0% of all institutions, enroll 22.4% (1,421,703) of all distance students. This is very different from Canada, where distance education students are much more evenly distributed across almost all institutions.
  • There are wide variations between the different U.S. states. The report provides a breakdown of online enrolments for each state.
  • The study identifies the 50 institutions with the most distance education enrollments. The top seven are:

  • The enrollment data for this report uses information from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) database.  IPEDS is a national census of postsecondary institutions in the U.S., which represents the most comprehensive data available. No such comprehensive post-secondary education data are publicly available in Canada.

This report indicates the value of an openly accessible national system of tracking online and distance education enrolments. Institutions must provide the data, especially as it influences federal state aid to students. Once such data are made publicly available, there are opportunities for all kinds of analyses to be made. The value though is that this is just part of a national program of data collection on higher education enrolments. We are nowhere close to matching this in Canada.

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