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Fall 2020 IPEDS Data: Mid-Pandemic Profile of US Higher Ed Online Education

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 2020 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 first time we have IPEDS data showing the impacts on pandemic-era enrollment. See this post for the final pre-pandemic profile.

This release is earlier than the typical December or January schedule, and it has a huge caveat: the IPEDS data definitions do not have adequate methods to handled emergency remote education, where traditional face-to-face coursework was forced online, or went back-and-forth as schools tried to manage the pandemic effects. This post by WCET is the best source to understand the changes and guidance issued by the Department of Education. For the profile below, which uses the EF Fall survey component on courses, schools were expected to classify a course as online (distance education, or DE) if it was entirely delivered in the Fall 2020 term online, even if that was part of an emergency response. If a course started in-person then shifted online, it should have been classified as not online (not DE). The caveat is that schools often lacked a method to handle this emergency reclassification and the resulting complications of data collections. We do not know the level of accurate reporting in this regard, but it has to be less accurate than pre-pandemic. Focus on the big picture and not the details for this year’s report.

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).

  • 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.

Initial Observations

The headline story is somewhat predictable, particularly given the NSC data from last year. Total enrollments were down (from 19.7 million to 19.1 million) but the number of students taking exclusive DE courses or some DE courses went up, significantly. The linear increase in online education stopped and experienced nonlinear changes. For Fall 2020, 46% of students took all of their courses online, 28% took some of their courses online, and 26% took no online courses. 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 the most recent, Fall 2020, data.

Table view of DE enrollment per sector, showing enrollment numbers and percentages for exclusive online course, some online course, and no online course enrollments

Nonlinear Trends

To get a sense of the change, look at the percentage of students taking at least one (ALO) course online vs. those taking no courses online.

trends 2012-2020 for percentage of us college students taking at least one online course vs. no online courses

If you look at the number of students taking exclusively online courses per sector, it is obvious that the biggest increase is for public 4-year institutions, from 1.1 million in Fall 2019 to 4.1 million in Fall 2020. Public 2-year schools increased from 800 thousand to 2.2 million in the same period, and private 4-years increased from 900 thousand to 1.6 million.

US higher ed exclusive DE enrollment 2012-2020 by sector