Study Concludes Online College Enrollment Growing Exponentially Faster Than Student Population


by Joe McKendrick

More than six million college and university students took at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year.  This almost 10 percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the less-than-1 percent growth in the overall higher education student population nationwide.

These are some of the findings from the recently released 2011 Survey of Online Learning, a collaborative effort between the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board. The survey, based on responses from over 2,500 academic leaders, reveals that nearly one-third of all students in higher education are taking at least one online course.  This is up from 10 percent of the total student population in 2002, the first year the survey was conducted.

The percentage of institutions that agree ‘‘online education is critical to the long-term strategy of my institution’’ reached its highest level in 2011 (65 percent) — up from 49 percent in 2002.

While online learning keeps growing, there was actually a bit of a slowdown over the past year, the study’s authors also note — the 10 percent growth rate for online enrollments is the second lowest since 2002. As study co-author Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group and Professor of Statistics & Entrepreneurship at Babson College, put it:

“The rate of growth in online enrollments is ten times that of the rate in all higher education. While growth rates have declined somewhat from previous years, we see no evidence that a dramatic slowdown in online enrollments is on the horizon.”

Allen also observes that “there is a wide variety in rate of growth of online enrollments among different colleges and universities, and also among different programs within the same institution. For example, fully online health sciences programs show higher growth than online programs in other disciplines.”

Online learning is now mainstream, for all intents and purposes. Survey respondents believe that the level of student satisfaction is equivalent for online and face-to-face courses, and 65% of higher education institutions now say that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy.

However, there continues to be a consistent minority of academic leaders concerned that the quality of online instruction is not equal to courses delivered face-to-face.  About a third still consider predominantly online course delivery as inferior to face-to-face interaction, though this is down from 42 percent in the 2002 study.

Of course, much of today’s learning occurs in blended settings, where there is often both online and face-to-face interaction. The Babson study defined online courses as “those in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online.”


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