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Author Phil HillBlog

US Higher Education Enrollment Trends by Distance Education Type, 2012-2018

By 2019-12-11December 16th, 2019One Comment

Earlier this week I shared a profile of US online education enrollment based on the new IPEDS Fall 2018 data set. To put the numbers in context, we should look at the trends since IPEDS started tracking online enrollment in Fall 2012.

As a reminder on the data usage:

  • 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). In this post I use both terms.
  • Exclusively 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.
US Higher Ed Enrollment Fall 2012 - 2018 By Student Distance Education (DE) Status

In this view showing total enrollments by DE type, we can see the persistent decline in total enrollment for US higher education, dropping from 20.7 to 19.7 million from 2012 to 2018. Beyond that, we have consistent trends where the number of students taking no online courses has dropped even further, from 15.3 to 12.7 million, while the number of students taking exclusively online courses has risen from 2.6 to 3.3 million, and students taking some but not all online courses has risen from 2.7 to 3.7 million.

Since the total enrollments are changing, it is worth looking at how the various sectors contribute to these changes by viewing the enrollment differences from 2012 data.

US Higher Ed Enrollment Difference From 2012, By Sector

The enrollment changes over the past six years is highly correlated with sector. Public 4-year institutions have increased enrollment by 861 thousand while public 2-year institutions have decreased by 1.2 million – even more than the for-profit sectors.

In this view we look at the percentage of total enrollment per year, and we combine the exclusive DE and some DE categories into students taking at least one online course. The percentage of students taking online courses has risen from 26.1% to 35.3% since 2012.

I noted in the Fall 2018 profile post that the rate of increase for online enrollments has slowed down for the some DE category.

US Higher Ed Enrollment Difference From 2012, By Student Distance Education (DE) Status - grad and undergrad combined

In this view you can see that exclusive DE category is rising more than some DE category over the past year (after the reverse being true from 2014 – 2017), but note that this view combines grad and undergrad degree types. If we separate into each component, there are significant differences.

US Higher Ed Enrollment Difference From 2012, By Student Distance Education (DE) Status - undergrad only

For undergrads, it is far more common to have students in a mixed mode – taking some online courses and some face-to-face courses – and a small amount of decrease in the growth rate.

US Higher Ed Enrollment Difference From 2012, By Student Distance Education (DE) Status - grad only

Now we see the real source of slowing growth for the some DE category – for grad school students. This is a radical change starting two years ago, with the number of grad students taking some but not all online courses suddenly hitting a plateau. In fact, the numbers are 59,099 for 2016, 57,546 for 2017, and 57,544 for 2018. Is this some artifact of data collection? I find it remarkable that the numbers across the US have only changed by 2 students in the past year and only 1,555 in the past two years. If someone can explain this sudden change and consistency in numbers over the past two years, please let me know in the comments.

Update 12/12: Clarified language about exclusive DE rising faster than some DE over the past year.