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IPEDS Fall 2021: Largest Institutions by Online Enrollments In US With Trends Since 2012

After the IPEDS Fall 2021 data came out in late December, I noticed a large and growing discrepancy between the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) and IPEDS about the size of the enrollment declines. I have been in contact with NSC, and the deeper I look into that situation, the more that I think we have IPEDS understating the enrollment declines rather than NSC overstating them. But I’ll share more based on NSC’s input. [full-page audio link]

The core of the issue between the two data sources is that NSC technically collects student data so that they do not duplicate counts for students attending multiple institutions, while IPEDS collects institution data. While I would like to hold off on general market analysis until I better understand the discrepancy noted, it is worth sharing information from IPEDS on the largest institutions in US higher education based on online enrollments.

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.

The first table ranks the institutions by their exclusive DE enrollments in Fall 2021, color coded by sector, combining undergraduate and graduate levels.

Largest US higher ed institutions ranked by Fall 2021 IPEDS exclusive distance ed enrollment

Increasingly, the largest players in online education are private non-profit and not for-profit universities. And Arizona State University.

Note, however that Purdue University Global (the artist formerly known as Kaplan University) and University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC, the artist formerly known as Ashford University) are classified differently in the Fall 2021. While the Arizona acquisition of Ashford was complete the year before, the Fall 2021 data still show the results for UAGC as a for-profit university. I suspect this is just a delay in all the final approvals, and UAGC will be in the public 4-year sector next year.

With that in mind, let’s look at trends for institutions based on the number of students taking at least one online course in the fall of each year from 2012 (the first year IPEDS included DE data) and 2021. I have highlighted the for-profit schools as well as the nonprofit conversions (Purdue Global and UAGC), given their origins and operating models. These institutions are ranked based on 2021 ALO enrollments.

IPEDS Fall 2021 Top 30 institutions by number of students taking at least one online course

You’ll notice by the sparklines how many schools were impacted by pandemic lockdowns and remote teaching, with spikes in 2020 and reductions in 2021. Note that the largest schools – Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University – do not show this trend. Also note that the University of the People has grown from startup to more than 56 thousands students in a five-year period. From a decline perspective, the big story continued to be the massive drop in enrollments at the University of Phoenix – by far the largest school as recently as 2017 but now #6 in online enrollments and #9 overall.