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IPEDS Fall 2020: Largest Institutions by Online Enrollments In US With Trends Since 2012

Last week I shared a profile of US online education enrollment based on the new IPEDS Fall Enrollment 2020 data set – the first mid-pandemic national distance education (DE) profile. Let’s look at the institutions with the top online enrollments along with some of the trends.

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 typically 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.

  • Fall Enrollment does not capture all students within a year, as it is a census approach. I am using the Fall Enrollment metric since that is where IPEDS captures DE data.

Largest US higher ed institutions ranked by Fall 2020 IPEDS exclusive distance ed enrollment #MindWiresOnline

One of the big stories that is not widely known is the rapid rise of the University of the People, which is an accredited, tuition-free online university. They are ranked #14 in terms of exclusively online. In Fall 2021 they have more than 106,000 exclusively online students, which will make them potentially the third-largest online university in next year’s rankings.

Now let’s look at trends from Fall 2012 through Fall 2020 for the top institutions by students taking at least one online course (combining exclusive DE and some DE categories from IPEDS).

Top institutions by enrollment of students taking at least one online course over time, 2012 - 2020

You’ll notice that I scaled the image so that it cuts off much of the 2012 – 2016 University of Phoenix DE enrollments. That was done to avoid the huge drop in that school’s enrollment (from 260k down to 95k) making the rest of the data unreadable. Just mentally extrapolate that red line. Also notice that by using the at least one online course metric, that Arizona State University rises to third place, followed by Grand Canyon University.

Combining those two views, we get the following:

IPEDS Fall 2020 Top 30 institutions by number of students taking at least one online course

And as a bonus, given our coverage of the Global Campus movement, here is a trend view for that group of students taking at least one oneline course (ALO).

Top online (at least one online course) enrollments for Global Campuses, Fall 2012 - 2020

In this view, you can clearly see the reversal in enrollment for Purdue Global as well as the rapidly dropping enrollment of U Arizona Global (Ashford U). And that UMass Global (Brandman University) has been growing since 2016. I combined the University of Arkansas eVersity and Grantham University enrollments, as I believe they plan to combine operations after the acquisition is complete.

I hope the data and visualizations are helpful as people view the first mid-pandemic US higher education enrollment data.

Update 11/2: I edited the name for the University of Arkansas combination of the existing eVersity and the new Grantham University. University of Arkansas Global is a name used by the University of Arkansas Fayetteville for online offerings specific to that campus and not as a systemwide initiative. The new or revised brand for eVersity & Grantham has not been finalized yet.