There and Back Again…An Online Student Migration Tale

Concurrent Session 9
Streamed Session

Watch This Session

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Do online programs cannibalize enrollments from on-campus programs? We studied the academic program online to on-campus enrollment migration patterns of all spring 2017 undergraduate students at IU’s seven campuses. We’ll share our methodology and results, and discuss the implications for online program development, student advising, and more.


Sharon Wavle is Associate Director of Decision Support and Reporting for the Office of Online Education at Indiana University, and currently serves as Vice-President of the Indiana Association for Institutional Research (INAIR). She is responsible for university-wide reporting and analysis of online education data. Sharon has presented her work in data management and business intelligence for online education at OLC Accelerate, the national Association for Institutional Research (AIR) Forum conference, the Indiana Association for Institutional Research (INAIR) conference, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) Summit for Online Leadership, and the Alteryx Inspire conference.

Extended Abstract

Indiana University is comprised of seven campuses, including a primarily residential Bloomington campus, a large urban campus (IUPUI) in Indianapolis, and five regional comprehensive teaching campuses spread across the state. IU’s Office of Online Education (OOE) is a university-wide office that, in partnership with university and campus leaders, facilitates and manages the growth and implementation of online education at all of IU’s campuses.

IU Online, the brand representing online programs offered by IU’s seven campuses, includes 110 online academic programs, including associate, baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degrees and graduate and undergraduate certificates. The seven campuses combined have approximately 4,700 students enrolled in online programs—about 5% of IU’s total enrollment. About 1700 of these students are enrolled in undergraduate programs.

IU’s process for creating new online programs begins with the campuses. When a campus proposes a new online program, the other campuses are notified and invited to join a consortium to develop and offer the new degree. Not surprisingly, faculty at some campuses are more enthusiastic about creating new online degrees than their colleagues at other campuses. When new online degrees are proposed, faculty and academic leaders often express concerns about the potential impact of the new programs on enrollment in current on-campus degree program. One concern is that current on-campus students will switch to the newly-developed online program, leaving the campus without sufficient on-campus enrollment to justify teaching on-campus courses. While we know that online class enrollment is growing at IU (about 28% of all IU students took at least one online class in spring 2017), that doesn’t necessarily mean that current students want to take their entire degree program online. But, until this study, we did not know what students were actually doing.


We reviewed the entire enrollment history of all undergraduate degree-seeking students enrolled in an undergraduate online or on-campus program at any Indiana University campus in the spring 2017 term. For each semester that the student attended IU, we looked at the student’s official program enrollment (on-campus or online program). For those whose program enrollment changed, we reviewed their course-taking behavior (all online classes, all on-campus classes, or some of each) and noted when they changed their major, switched from online to on-campus (or on-campus to online), and/or moved from one IU campus to another.


Online Program Students: There were 1,717 degree-seeking students enrolled in an online undergraduate program in spring 2017.

We found that the majority (932 or 54%) of the students currently enrolled in an online program had been consistently enrolled in an online program from their first semester at IU. Another 57 (3%) took all of their courses online from the time they declared their major, though they weren’t yet coded in the online program.

We found that 559 (32.5%) of spring 2017 online students had started in an on-campus program and then switched to an online program. However, almost half of these were students who had been away from IU for at least a year (some as long as 10 or more years) and then returned to complete a degree online. Only 87 students, or 5.1% of the total, changed from an on-campus degree program to the online version of the same program. The remaining 69 students changed majors, some multiple times.

We were not able to discern the intention of about 10% of the students, mainly because of coding anomalies, including simultaneous enrollment in on-campus and online programs, known coding issues with a particular degree program, and inaccurate coding of pre-major program plans.

Campus Program Students: There were 66,559 degree-seeking students enrolled in on-campus undergraduate programs in spring 2017.

We found that very few students enrolled in an on-campus program had previously been enrolled in an online program at any point in their undergraduate career. Only 165 students (0.25%) had switched at one point from an online to an on-campus program. Of those, 50 students were enrolled in a program with known coding problems. There were 7 students who appear to have used a temporary enrollment in an online plan to prepare for enrollment in an on-campus program at one of our core campuses in Bloomington and Indianapolis. 11 students made a direct switch from an online program to a new, on-campus major at the same campus.

It was difficult to discern the intention of the remaining 97 on-campus students, who often were enrolled in at least some online classes even when enrolled in an on-campus plan. These could be coding anomalies or students who still chose the flexibility of online classes as part of their on-campus degree programs.


As institutional stakeholders consider their current and future levels of involvement in online education, they must answer the question of whether new online programs will compete with current on-campus programs for student enrollments. Will new online programs attract a different student audience than current on-campus programs, or will current students simply switch to the online program? This is especially true for institutions, like the five regional campuses of IU, which have very few students living on or within walking distance of the campus.

In our discussions with campus faculty and administrators, there is real concern that the convenience and flexibility of online courses will mainly attract their current on-campus students. They fear that, as new online degree programs are created (either by their campus or another IU campus), their on-campus programs will wither away. This concern is exacerbated when they see data from the Office of Online Education that the number of students enrolled in online courses continues to increase, even as overall enrollment stays steady or even declines.

However, the current study provides evidence that this fear is unfounded. Most undergraduate students in online programs at IU started out in online programs. A very small number do change from an on-campus program to the same program online, but that number is far exceeded by the number of students who had stopped out and now were returning to finish a degree online—students who may have been lost to IU had online options not been available.