Academic Outreach

Faculty Focused

The State of Online Higher Education Across The Nation

Posted on: September 22nd, 2014 by

Like it or not, online education seems here to stay. And it is growing rapidly. Below are some statistics about online higher education nationwide. For this post, all statistics refer to
higher education institutions and students only and are pulled from the 2012 survey Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States.

Online Learning is Growing!

The evidence:

  • Nationwide, the number of additional students taking at least one online course grew as much in 2012 as it did in 2011.
  • The number of students taking at least one online course increased by over 570,000 to a new total of 6.7 million.
  • The online enrollment growth rate of 9.3 percent is the lowest recorded in this report series.
  • The proportion of all students taking at least one online course is at an all-time high of 32.0 percent.

How Many Students are Learning Online?

For years the number of postsecondary students in the United States has increased – driven by the increasing number of persons graduating from high school and economic factors. Bad economic times are often good for higher education enrollments.

However, higher education in 2011 reported that the total number of students enrolled at U.S. higher education institutions had actually dropped. But even as overall enrollment dropped, the number of students taking at least one online course continued to increase robustly.

There were 572,000 more online students in fall 2011 than in fall 2010 for a new total of 6.7 million students taking at least one online course which is very close to the average increase seen for each of the last nine periods – of 568,000 students per year.

Online Programs

A major change has also occurred in the nature of the online offerings – a far larger proportion of higher education institutions have moved from offering only online courses to providing complete online programs (62.4% in 2012 as compared to 34.5% in 2002).

Online Learning is Strategic to many institutions

Ole Miss has made online learning a priority, and a task force is in the process of creating a more strategic long term plan for the use of online courses at OM.

What is happening at other institutions? The proportion of chief academic leaders that say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy is now at 69.1 percent – the highest ever. Institutions reporting online education is not critical to their long-term strategy have dropped to a new low of 11.2 percent.

Why is online learning considered strategic? For one thing, online attendance is fueling the bulk of the growth in university enrollments. By expanding access and scheduling flexibility for courses, more people can attend classes. The generation that is entering higher education now is the digital generation. They demand online access to courses, or they may choose another educational institution.

For the growing army of older, unemployed, or underemployed workers, online courses are many times the only access to higher education they may have.

The Digital Divide Still Exists

The term digital divide refers to inequities between those who have regular, reliable access to the Internet and digital technologies and those who do not. There is substantial evidence that the digital divide remains a reality for the very students that online promoters claim they want to reach— low-income students, students of color, and academically underprepared students.

As of 2012, the United States ranked 14th in the world for broadband access per capita according to data from the International Communications Union. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s 2011 “Exploring the Digital Nation” report reveals that while more households used broadband internet service (68 percent) in 2011, “demographic and geographic disparities demonstrate a persistent digital divide among certain groups.” The report continues, “lower income families, people with less education, those with disabilities, Blacks, Hispanics, and rural residents generally lagged the national average in both broadband adoption and computer use.” This stands in sharp contrast to the digital access enjoyed by well-educated middle- and upper-class white households.

Define “Online Courses”

The focus of this report is online education. The same definitions have been used for all ten years of these national reports. This report is devoted to only online learning.

Chart for RU State of Online Education

Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States, p. 7.