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Author Phil Hill

2020-21 IPEDS Data: Profile of Mid-Pandemic 12-Month Enrollments

By 2022-08-29One Comment

I’ve covered the National Center for Education Statistic’s IPEDS data on distance education (i.e., online education) for the past ten years, starting with this 2012 profile and continuing to the recent 2020 profile and analysis. 1Reminder: IPEDS reports distance education (DE), although that is mostly equivalent to online education, and I’ll use the terms interchangably.

IPEDS has been invaluable to researchers and analysts trying to understand these enrollment trends, but a well-known weakness is that the data come from the Fall Enrollment survey, which takes a census approach. How many students of each category as of the October census date (the 15th for most schools). This approach does not capture the increasingly important nature of multiple starts per year, shorter terms, and habits of part-time working-adult students. Students who take online courses in the winter, spring, summer, but for whatever reason not in the fall just don’t get counted, as the data approach originated with the assumptions of traditional start in the fall with a semester or quarter system programs.

Last year NCES added distance education classifications to their 12-month Enrollment survey which more accurately represents the true nature of online courses and programs. The basis of the survey is count of how many unduplicated students fit in each category over a 12-month period, from July 1 through June 30 (in the current case from the 2020-21 academic year). Now we can capture students in face-to-face programs who took online courses in winter, spring, or summer but not fall. Students working on flexible schedules that just don’t align with the October census dates. For all of the following charts:

  • Exclusive DE: # or % of students taking only online courses in 2020-21
  • Some DE: # or % of students taking both online and face-to-face courses in 2020-21
  • No DE: # or % of students taking only face-to-face courses in 2020-21
US Higher Ed institutional enrollments by sector by DE type for IPEDS 12-month data 2020-21

Looking further at the data:

  • The 2020-21 academic year was chaotic, with most programs in Fall 2020 remaining online (or remote), with a growing number of institutions adding back face-to-face options over time into Spring 2021.
  • Overall, 46% of students in this period took only online courses, and a further 34% took a mix of online and face-to-face courses, totaling 80% of students taking at least some online courses.
  • These numbers show higher online entollments than the Fall 2020 data that showed 74% of students taking at least some online courses.

If we look at the top institutions by total enrollment, segmented by DE type, we see just how large WGU and SNHU have gotten. Remember, this 12-month data better captures fully-online program enrollments than the fall census.

largest us higher ed institutions by enrollment by DE type

What if we did the same chart but segmented it by the Degree Level (undergrad vs grad)?

largest US higher ed institutions by enrollment by degree level

And finally, two charts showing the changes from the 2019-20 to the 2020-21 academic year in terms of enrollments by sector (removing private and for profit 2-year sectors due to very low totals; bars showing total differences, labels as % change):

Change in IPEDS enrollment by sector

and by DE type:

Change in IPEDS enrollment by sector

One Comment

  • Clay Shirky says:

    Your first chart suggests another possible read of the data, after the Kaplan’s/Purdue and Ashford/UAGC deals: how many more such acquisitions of for-profits by publics are possible?

    Kaplans was just over 30K students, Ashford just under. If you set the threshold for “Meaningful addition to online capability/financially positive” at 25K, you could get an upper limit on attempts at those sorts of conversions.

    Your ‘Largest enrollments’ chart shows just 5 — Grand Canyon, Phoenix, APUS, Walden and Strayer — with GC trying to become a non-profit. How many more are below Strayer’s 60K but above 25K? Another 10? What if you go down to 10K students? Another 30?

    Even if Trump returns in 2024, two more years of a Democratic administration is more bad news for for-profits, and no one wants to run a business that can only make money under only one party. You’ve written so clearly about UAGC — I wonder if the bloom is off the rose for those deals, or if the pressure on for-profits and the absorption of Zovio makes fire-sale prices _more_ likely?