2008 - Staying The Course - Online Education in the United States

Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008 represents the sixth annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. This year’s study, like those for the previous five years, is aimed at answering some of the fundamental questions about the nature and extent of online education. A collaborative effort between the Babson Survey Research Group, the College Board and the Sloan Consortium and supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation the study is based on responses from more than 2,500 colleges and universities, addressing 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, with the most recent data demonstrating no signs of slowing.

  • Over 3.9 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2007 term; a 12 percent increase over the number reported the previous year.
  • The 12.9 percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 1.2 percent growth of the overall higher education student population.
  • Over twenty percent of all U.S. higher education students were taking at least one online course in the fall of 2007.

What is Impact of the Economy on Online Enrollments?

Background: Bad economic times have often been good for education, either because decreased availability of good jobs encourages more people to seek education instead, or because those currently employed seek to improve their chances for advancement by advancing their education.
The evidence: Institutions believe that the economic changes will have a positive impact on overall enrollments and that specific aspects of an economic downturn resonate closely with increasing demand for online courses with specific types of schools.

  • There is widespread agreement that higher fuel costs will lead to more students selecting online courses.
  • Institutions that offer programs to serve working adults are the most positive about the potential for overall enrollment growth being driven by rising unemployment.

Do Academic Leaders and Faculty Agree?

Background: Chief academic officers have important decision making powers for institutions of higher education, and they often make their decisions based on their understanding of faculty opinions. Do these academic leaders have a good understanding of faculty views?
The evidence: A series of questions about motivations for teaching online was asked of a sample of faculty who teach online and of chief academic officers. There was a wide level of agreement, with one important difference.

  • Both chief academic officers and online teaching faculty said that the flexibility in meeting the needs of students was the most important motivation for teaching online.
  • Being required to teach online had the lowest rated motivation in each group.
  • The largest difference in view is in the ranking of additional income as a motivation; chief academic officers ranked this second of seven items, faculty ranked it fifth.
  • Faculty ranking stressed student centered issues more so than the ranking of chief academic officers.

Is Online Learning Strategic?

Background: For online education to continue its rapid growth, it must be perceived as important by the chief academic officers who are planning tomorrow’s educational offerings. Only if these academic leaders believe that online is critical will they build future programs around it.
The evidence: Results for the previous five years have shown an increase followed by a leveling in the proportion of those institutions stating that online education is critical to their long term strategy.

  • The proportion of institutions declaring that online education is critical to their long-term strategy shows a small decline for fall 2007.
  • The proportion of institutions that see online education as a critical part of their long-term strategy appears to have reached a plateau over the past several years.
  • Public institutions continue to be the most likely to believe that online education is critical to their long-term strategy.
  • Approximately one-third of baccalaureate institutions consider online to be critical, a rate about half that of other institutional types.

What Disciplines are Best Represented Online?

Background: Online enrollments have shown substantial growth for each of the past five years. Has this extraordinary growth been uniform across all areas of higher education or concentrated among specific institutions or specific types of programs?
The evidence: Online enrollments have seen steady growth, as has the number of institutions with online program offerings. What is not known, however, is if particular disciplines are better suited to online and others less well suited.

  • There is roughly equal penetration for seven of the eight major discipline areas being examined.
  • Engineering is the only discipline area where online representation is much lower than for other areas.
  • Public institutions have the highest penetration rates for all disciplines other than engineering.
  • Associate’s institutions have a wide lead in online penetration for psychology, social sciences, and liberal arts.