2007 - Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning

Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning represents the fifth annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. This year’s study, like those for the previous four years, is aimed at answering some of the fundamental questions about the nature and extent of online education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and based on responses from more than 2,500 colleges and universities, the study addresses the following key questions:

How Many Students are Learning Online?

Background: For the past several years, online enrollments have been growing substantially faster than overall higher education enrollments. The expectation of academic leaders has been that these enrollments would continue their substantial growth for at least another year. Do the measured enrollments match these lofty expectations?
The evidence: Online enrollments have continued to grow at rates far in excess of the total higher education student population, albeit at slower rates than for previous years.

  • Almost 3.5 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2006 term; a nearly 10 percent increase over the number reported the previous year.
  • The 9.7 percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 1.5 percent growth of the overall higher education student population.
  • Nearly twenty percent of all U.S. higher education students were taking at least one online course in the fall of 2006.

Change Enrollments Survey ChartWhere has the Growth in Online Learning Occurred?

Background: Earlier studies in this series have demonstrated that not all institutions of higher education are equally enthusiastic about online education. It can be expected, therefore, that the long-term growth rates for online enrollments will differ by type of institution. 
The evidence: Virtually all types of institutions of higher education have shown substantial growth, but with some clear leaders.

  • Two-year associate’s institutions have the highest growth rates and account for over one-half of all online enrollments for the last five years.
  • Baccalaureate institutions began the period with the fewest online enrollments and have had the lowest rates of growth.

Why do Institutions Provide Online Offerings?

Background: The growth of online enrollments has been abundantly clear. Less clear, however, is why colleges and universities are moving to online. What specific objectives do they hope to achieve through their online courses and programs?
The evidence: Improving student access is the most often cited objective for online courses and programs. Cost reduction is not seen as important.

  • All types of institutions cite improved student access as their top reason for offering online courses and programs.
  • Institutions that are the most engaged in online education cite increasing the rate of degree completion as a very important objective; this is not as important for institutions that are not as engaged in online learning.
  • Online is not seen as a way to lower costs; reduced or contained costs are among the least-cited objectives for online education.
  • The appeal of online instruction to non-traditional students is indicated by the high number of institutions which cite growth in continuing and/or professional education as an objective for their online offerings.

What are the Prospects for Future Online Enrollment Growth?

Background: Compound annual enrollment growth rates of over twenty percent are not sustainable. The demand for online among potential students is finite, as is the ability of institutions to grow existing offerings or add new ones. Where can we expect the additional growth to occur?
The evidence: Approximately one-third of higher education institutions account for three-quarters of all online enrolments. Future growth will come predominately from these and similar institutions as they add new programs and grow existing ones.

  • Much of the past growth in online enrollments has been fueled by new institutions entering the online learning arena. This transition is now nearing its end; most institutions that plan to offer online education are already doing so.
  • A large majority (69 percent) of academic leaders believe that student demand for online learning is still growing.
  • Virtually all (83 percent) institutions with online offerings expect their online enrollments to increase over the coming year.
  • Future growth in online enrollments will most likely come from those institutions that are currently the most engaged; they enroll the most online learning students and have the highest expectations for growth.

What are the Barriers to Widespread Adoption of Online Education?

Background: Previous studies in this series have shown that academic leaders have consistently commented that their faculty often do not accept the value of online learning and that it takes more time and effort to teach an online course. To what extent do these leaders see these and other issues as critical barriers to the widespread adoption of online learning?
The evidence: Identification of the most important barriers differs widely between those with online offerings and those who do not offer any. Current results replicate our previous studies in identifying faculty acceptance and the need for more discipline on the part of students as the most common concerns.

  • Academic leaders cite the need for more discipline on the part of online students as the most critical barrier, matching the results of last year’s survey.
  • Faculty acceptance of online instruction remains a key issue. Those institutions most engaged in online do not believe it is a concern for their own campus, but do see it as a barrier to more wide-spread adoption of online education.
  • Higher costs for online development and delivery are seen as barriers among those who are planning online offerings, but not among those who have online offerings.
  • Academic leaders do not believe that there is a lack of acceptance of online degrees by potential employers.