Dive Brief:

  • Nearly 35% of students, including those at the graduate-level, took at least one distance learning class in the fall of 2018, a slight uptick from 33% of students who did so in 2017, according to new federal data
  • Of more than 20 million students enrolled at institutions nationwide in the fall of 2018, 16.3% — or more than 3.2 million students — enrolled in only distance education classes, the data shows, up from 15.4% of students in the fall of 2017. 
  • Though some in higher ed predict the growth of online learning will continue, there are signs of a slowdown. 

Dive Insight:

Online learning has exploded at traditional two- and four-year institutions. The latter group has tried to add more of these types of courses to attract adult learners and other nontraditional students, and to position themselves to fare better during an economic downturn. 

About 18.4% of college students were enrolled in some distance learning courses in 2018, according to the report, which uses data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). That’s compared to 17.6% of students who did the same in 2017. (Distance education classes are almost always digital but the category can include courses taught offline.)

Unsurprisingly, students attending a for-profit institution tended to take their classes online, with about 50% of those students taking distance learning classes exclusively in the fall of 2018. And although enrollment at for-profits overall dropped from 1.3 million students in 2017 to 1.2 million in 2018, the share taking only online classes rose one-and-a-half percentage points during that time.

Students at private nonprofits also enrolled in distance education classes at higher rates than their peers at public colleges. About 20% of students at private nonprofits were exclusively enrolled in distance learning, compared to about 12% at public institutions.

A little more than 2% of all students in 2018 attended institutions devoted entirely to distance learning, such as Western Governors University, which offers traditional master’s and bachelor’s programs as well as some microcredentialsEncompassing certificates and badges, microcredentials have proven popular for some students, though institutions and educational agencies offering them are not always included in IPEDS data.​

Within their respective groups, the shares of undergraduate and graduate students at public and private nonprofit colleges were largely flat year-over-year.

Despite the small gains, some observers suggest growth in higher ed’s online footprint might slow. Phil Hill, an ed tech consultant and analyst with the firm MindWires, pointed out in a blog post that the growth in students taking at least some distance education classes was smaller between 2017 and 2018 than between 2016 and 2017. 

Further, as more colleges pursue online education, the market is expected to become more crowded, making it harder for individual institutions to gain a strong foothold, Moody’s Investors Service noted in a report earlier this year. 

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