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Alternative View: More than 50% of US Higher Ed students took at least one online course in 2019-20

I’ve covered the National Center for Education Statistic’s IPEDS data on distance education (i.e., online education) for the past nine years, starting with this 2012 profile and continuing to the recent 2020 profile and analysis. 2020 is an aberration, however, due to the pandemic-driven shift to emergency remote teaching, and the 2019 profile has been more of an indicator of how far online education had come in US higher education. NCES describes it this way: 1 2

In year 2019, the percent of students enrolled in distance education courses in postsecondary institutions in the fall was 36.6%. This is based on 5,961 institutions.

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.

NCES recently 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 how many unduplicated students fit in each category over a 12-month period, from July 1 through June 30 (in the initial case from the 2019-20 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. But unfortunately I haven’t seen anyone analyze this new data.

It turns out that from this mostly pre-pandemic period the number of US higher ed students taking online courses was far greater than what has previously been reported. Based on 12-month reporting, 51.8% of students took at least one online course in 2019-20, much higher than the roughly 37% reported from Fall 2019 reporting.

Comparing IPEDS fall 2019 enrollment with 2019-20 enrollment for distance education #MindWiresOnline

Looking further at the data:

  • The difference in reported enrollments is much greater for students taking online courses, but the number of students taking no DE courses is essentially unchanged at just over 12.3 million students.

  • The number of exclusive DE students (i.e., taking fully-online programs) increases from 3.5 million to 5.8 million, and from 17.6% of all students to 22.7%.

  • This 2019-20 data would be impacted by the pandemic for student enrollment in courses that began in April, May, or June of 2020 and had initially been planned to be face-to-face but shifted online. These changes would show up in the Some DE category. I suspect that some of this increase (from from 3.9 million to 7.5 million, and from 19.6% of all students to 29.1%) can be attributed to the pandemic.

  • The biggest changes occurred in the Public 4-year, Private 4-year, and Public 2-year sectors. Each sector’s percentage of students taking at least one online course increased from roughly 32 – 37% to 50 – 53%.

None of this is to criticize NCES for basing previous DE data on Fall Enrollment surveys. It is simply to call out that there is a better approach now with 12-month Enrollment data, and that (mostly) pre-pandemic a far greater number of students were taking online courses than previously estimated. And it is useful to maintain Fall Enrollment reporting to help measure historical trends.

I would rewrite that NCES summary as follows:

In academic year 2019-20, the percent of students enrolled in distance education courses in postsecondary institutions was 51.8%.

Update 10/8: Rewrote bullet on Some DE courses to clarify impacts from the pandemic in the data.

1 Reminder that my IPEDS profiles exclude less-than-2-year institutions and have slightly different percentages.

2 Reminder: IPEDS reports distance education (DE), although that is mostly equivalent to online education, and I’ll use the terms interchangably.