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Author Phil Hill

Fall 2021 IPEDS Data: Profile of US Higher Ed Online Education

By 2022-12-225 Comments

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) and its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) provide the most official data on colleges and universities in the United States. I have been analyzing and sharing the data since the inaugural Fall 2012 dataset, and the Fall 2021 data were just released. The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) has provided a valuable series of survey-based (as opposed to IPEDS census-based) data reports, which I described here, here, and here. This is the second time we have IPEDS data showing the impacts on pandemic-era enrollment. See this post for the final pre-pandemic profile and this post for a mid-pandemic profile. [full-page audio link]

Additional Data Notes

Please note the following:

  • There are multiple ways to filter and select data. For this set (as with previous analyses for consistency’s sake), I have limited to U.S. degree-granting institutions in six sectors – public 4-year, private 4-year, for profit 4-year, public 2-year, private 2-year, and for profit 2-year. For undergraduate totals I have included degree-seeking and non-degree-seeking students (degree-granting institutions can offer non-degree programs). This will give different totals than other reporting methods. In particular, note that the IPEDS data view summary includes less than 2-year degrees and also includes non degree-granting institutions, leading to slightly higher numbers than shown below.
  • For the most part distance education (DE) and online education terms are interchangeable, but they are not equivalent as DE can include courses delivered by a medium other than the Internet (e.g. correspondence course).
  • Exclusive DE is for students taking all courses online; Some DE is for students taking some courses online but not all; At Least One DE, or ALO DE is a combination of exclusive and some DE.

Initial Observations

Like last year the headline story is somewhat predictable, as schools were rushing into the new normal by ditching emergency remote teaching, for the most part. Total enrollments decreased (from 19.1 million to 18.8 million), Exclusive DE enrollments significantly decreased (from 8.7 million to 5.7 million), Some DE enrollments increased (from 5.4 to 5.6 million), and No DE enrollments significantly increased (from 4.9 million to 7.5 million). There was fewer online enrollments, but the numbers were significantly higher than per-pandemic numbers. For Fall 2021, 31% of students took all of their courses online, 30% took some of their courses online, and 40% took no online courses (numbers do not add to 100% due to rounding). By way of comparison with Fall 2019, those numbers were 18%, 20%, and 63%.

Table View

Below is a profile of online education in the US for degree-granting colleges and university, broken out by sector for Fall 2021. For regular readers, note that this table uses the IPEDS sector definition and not the Adjusted Sector definition I will use in additional analysis.

US Higher Ed Enrollment per DE Type Fall 2021 Profile

Nonlinear Trends

To get a sense of the pandemic changes – from a rapid shift online in Fall 2020 towards a new normal in 2021, look at the percentage of students taking at least one (ALO) course online vs. those taking no courses online.

% HE Enrollment Fall 2012 - 2021 of Students Taking At Least One (ALO) Online Course

In absolute numbers, you can see that the reduction in online education came from the Exclusive DE category, as Some DE enrollments actually increased from Fall 2020 to Fall 2021.

Enrollment per DE Type

Year-Over-Year Perspective

Total enrollments decreased 1.6% from the year before, with Exclusive DE decreasing 34.1%, Some DE increasing 2.4%, and No DE increasing 51.1%.

Year-Over-Year Percent Change Enrollment per DE Type

Stay tuned for additional enrollment analysis.


  • William Edwards says:

    I couldn’t help but notice that the for-profit sector has the largest percentage of Exclusive DE and Some DE learners and a small percentage of No DE.

  • Steven Rutt says:

    I’m intrigued by the difference in ALO mix for private vs public 4 year institutions. The gap is almost 20 points…is this just publics being more willing to lean into online?

    • Phil Hill says:

      It is interesting, and note that exclusive DE mixes are similar. This means that it is more common for publics to have students taking f2f and DE courses at the same time. Also note that WGU and SNHU and Liberty account for some 300k – 400k of the exclusive DE private #s (haven’t QA’d the institutional-level data yet). So if you exclude those three schools, I think your answer is correct. School size might be another factor (larger schools having more individual online course options).

  • Pete Watkins says:

    I think that in the post-pandemic world it is not enough to compare in-person to online enrollment. There are now three modalities-in-person, online synchronous (Zoom), and online asynchronous. Online synchronous is very different from online asynchronous and in some ways more similar to in-person. Can we start breaking out the data this way?

    • Phil Hill says:

      I would love some more options on modality, but we have to deal with the data we have. And for IPEDS that is DE vs. F2F at the course level and program level; and for NSC it is Primarily Online Institutions vs. Everyone Else. Right now the deeper data exist at the institutional level, and occasionally statewide system level.