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Largest Institutions by Online Enrollments In US With Trends Since 2012, in Pictures

Last week I shared a view of the largest institutions in US higher education by the number of students taking either exclusively online courses or at least one online course. But it felt like a cop out to base most of that view on tables – a picture is worth a thousand numbers, I guess. This year I’m adding a new type of view to the IPEDS data coverage to visualize the trends for these large-enrollment institutions.

As a reminder on the data usage:

  • I have grouped and named institutions for consistency based on 2020 status. Thus Purdue Global (Kaplan) will capture the years as Kaplan University (prior to 2018 ) and as Purdue Global.

  • 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. No DE is for students taking all face-to-face courses.

  • 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 following views separate enrollment per year into No DE and At Least One DE. Note that the vertical and horizontal axes use different scales.

  • The sectors are color coded as blue = Public 4-year, yellow = Private 4-year, red = For-profit 4-year, and green = Public 2-year; these are not adjusted based on sector changes.

Fall 2012

In 2012 we get a much better sense of just how much of an outlier the University of Phoenix was, and 2012 was not even its peak year. Not only did that school have the largest online enrollment of any institution in the country, it also had the largest enrollment for students not taking any online courses. UoP had more than 200 brick-and-mortar locations in 2011.

The bulk of institutions line up on the left, with large percentages of students not taking online courses, heavily populated by Public 4-year and Pubic 2-year institutions, although ITT and Argosy – Art Institute were large for-profits mostly based on face-to-face programs. At the bottom you see schools heavily into online education, mostly with for-profits and privates.

Institution Enrollment of no DE vs ALO DE for 2012


By 2016 the picture has changed in online education. The University of Phoenix is dropping quickly both in total enrollment and in the percentage of No DE students as they closed campuses. This view shows a history for each school for 2012 – 2016.

The bottom of the view is no longer as dominated by for-profits, as both private and public institutions have made significant gains in online education. Outside of UoP, enrollments for students with no DE courses is roughly capped at 60k. You can also see the rise of Western Governors University at the bottom.

Insitution enrollment for No DE vs ALO DE in 2016


By Fall 2020 we’ve entered the pandemic, and there has been a massive shift of schools to online education. Recall from this post that IPEDS defined an online course in Fall 2020 as one with no face-to-face meetings, thus enrollments starting on campus and then shifting online should not factor into the ALE DE Enrollment.

The University of Phoenix has dropped behind Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State University, and even Grand Canyon University.

Texas A&M

Online institutions no DE vs ALO DE 2020

Over Time

Put these together over time, showing a history line, and you see the enrollment trends in this video.

Take that, overly-dense data tables!