Beyond the Numbers: What the 2014 Babson Survey of Online Learning Tells Us

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Today, OLC jointly released “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2014,” the twelfth annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. This survey, conducted annually by the Babson Survey Research Group, and co-sponsored by OLC, Pearson and Tyton Partners, is the leading barometer of online learning in the United States.

Based on responses from over 2,800 academic leaders, the findings from this year’s survey reveal some important trends and market shifts for the OLC community to consider.

Enrollments Moderating, Yet Growing Faster Than Higher Ed Overall

Among the survey’s top findings, the number of higher education students taking at least one distance education course in 2014 is up 3.7 percent from the previous year. While this represents the slowest rate of increase in over a decade, online enrollment growth far exceeded that of overall higher education.

As study Co-Author and Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group Jeff Seaman explains, “The study’s findings point to a competitive marketplace, in which traditional institutions are gaining ground on the for-profits in online and distance education. While the rapid pace of online learning growth has moderated, it still accounts for nearly three-quarters of all US higher education’s enrollment increases last year.”

The apparent shift in enrollments from for-profits to public and non-profit institutions is certainly a trend the OLC community will watch closely. As enrollment growth slows, competition for online students will only grow. The development of quality online programs becomes a post-secondary imperative as institutions will need to advance these programs to ensure they remain competitive.

Challenges Highlighted: Retention Rates, Faculty Acceptance

The study also reveals the challenges for institutions in realizing the long-term strategic value of online learning while addressing concerns such as retention rates and acceptance by faculty.

The proportion of chief academic leaders reporting online learning is critical to their long-term strategy reached a new high of 70.8 percent. At the same time, only 28 percent of academic leaders say that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.”

Report Co-Author I. Elaine Allen explains, “While the number of students taking online courses has grown by the millions over the past decade, it has not come without considerable concerns. Faculty acceptance has lagged, concerns about student retention linger and leaders continue to worry that online courses require more faculty effort than does face-to-face instruction.”

These concerns are shared across the OLC community. They underscore the ongoing need to develop leaders within your institution who can ensure practices and programs are advancing and producing desired learning outcomes and fostering the support and confidence of faculty. They also emphasize the importance of ongoing faculty professional development; ensuring institutions and their faculty achieve higher levels of student learning and success outcomes.

High Marks for Learning Outcomes; Online Seen as Critical for the Long-Term

Nearly three-quarters (74.1 percent) of the academic leaders surveyed by Babson rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face. In addition, 70.8 percent of chief academic leaders report online learning is critical to their long-term strategy.

As OLC Board President Joel Hartman points out, “With a convincing majority of responding academic leaders saying that online learning is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy, and nearly three-quarters claiming student outcomes from online learning are the same or better than outcomes from face-to-face instruction, I think we can safely say that online learning has become an established and increasingly important component of the American higher education landscape.”

It’s no secret higher education is at an inflection point, with a multitude of economic, societal and market pressures driving change. OLC works every day with the leaders in online learning to understand how these trends and challenges affect the future of online learning. The “Grade Level” report keeps us attuned to the trends that require our deepest consideration. I encourage you to take a closer look at the full report.


Kathleen Ives, D.M.
Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director

Kathleen S. Ives, D.M. has worked in online technology for over 20 years and is currently the Online Learning Consortium’s Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director where she oversees the organization’s strategic direction. Dr. Ives assumes this leadership role after serving as interim CEO and Executive Director since October 2013. Additionally, she serves as faculty for the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (sponsored by Penn State and OLC) and on the Leadership Advisory Board for the Center for Learning Innovations & Customized Knowledge Solutions (CLICKS). Formerly, Dr. Ives oversaw all forms of alternative instruction at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, MA (distance learning, accelerated programming). She serves as adjunct faculty for University of Phoenix, Denver-based American Sentinel University, and Bay State College in Boston. 

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