Online Education Growth in Community Colleges in the US
Much bigger than I initially thought
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A few things recently got me thinking about how much online learning has grown in community colleges and other 2-year institutions. So, I decided to explore the issue in a bit more detail.
Why think about 2-year schools online?
The things that really triggered my interest in 2-year institutions online presence were:
Phil’s post on 12-month enrollments where there were more 2-year institutions than I had remembered, and some that I would not have expected to see there;
A news article about Southwest Texas College partnering with iDesign.edu in order to expand their online offerings; and
It was the last one that especially got me thinking. Online education has been a bit of a challenge for community colleges, especially given their heavy vocational focus.
Who are the big players in two-year online learning?
From Phil’s original data we see several institutions that are in the top 25 in terms of fully online students, as the following table shows.
Ivy Tech Community College
Lone Star College System
Northern Virginia Community College
Houston Community College
Tarrant County College District
Those are some startling numbers, but are these institutions outliers among community and junior colleges? It turns out they are not. There are several large providers in the 2-year space, as shown in the chart below showing the top 25 2-year institutions in terms the size of their purely DE offering.
There are 38 institutions that have more than 10,000 enrollments in exclusive DE and another five that who are on the cusp of reaching 10,000. Given that this data is from 2021-2022, it is possible that those five have passed the 10,000 mark, which is a substantial number.
One note on the data above is that it includes Eastern Gateway Community College. Over the past several years this institution has been the subject of scrutiny and investigation by the Department of Education (ED) and others over its Free College Benefit Program which allowed union members and their families to enroll in the college at no cost. Federal and employee grants covered the bulk of the costs, and there were some last-mile grants and scholarships for whatever remained outstanding. The college worked with an organization called the Student Resource Center which essentially acted as an OPM and took a revenue share of 50%. Eastern Gateway’s online enrollment ballooned to over 40,000 students in a short period of time.
ED alleged that the college charged Pell-eligible students only the cost of the grant and used excess Pell funds to cover the cost of non-eligible students. The college and ED have settled, but it is too soon to see what impact this will have on eastern Gateway’s enrollment.
While Eastern Gateway is something of an outlier, other colleges show the strength of fully online enrollments in the 2-year space.
How has fully online enrollment in 2-year institutions changed over time?
How recent of a phenomenon is this embrace of online by community and 2-year colleges and what sort of a pattern has this growth followed? To understand the answer, we looked at the change in the data from 2012, when the data for fully online enrollments were first reported in IPEDS, to Fall 2021 - see the animated chart below. Note that this chart uses Fall Enrollment metrics that differ from the 12-month unduplicated headcount used above.
Enrollment as a driver of the increase in online numbers at 2-year institutions
From the chart you can see the big change in DE enrollment in 2020, and to a lesser degree in 2021. It was growing slowly before that, but the impact of the pandemic is obvious right at the end as many (but not all colleges) had to rapidly expand their online offerings.
From the most recent data you can clearly see that a lot of the pandemic-driven online enrollment has been sustained. Why is this? No doubt some of it is inertia. But some of the appetite for fully online is also a matter of convenience. Community college students, perhaps even more so than students of four-year institutions, are very likely working and have family commitments, and fully online education is simply more convenient. I remember soon after the pandemic trying to talk a community college administrator in the Washington D.C area out of doing HyFlex teaching. He explained that students really didn’t want to come back to campus full-time as they now realized they didn’t have to sit in Beltway traffic for hours on end to get to class. Having spent what seems like an inordinate amount of my life sitting in that same traffic, I am certainly sympathetic.
But I believe that there are other reasons behind the acceptance and staying power of online, and you get a hint of that in the trajectory of Ivy Tech Community College in the early frames of the chart above. I’ve spent the past several weeks neck-deep in online learning. Something that jumped out at me is the extent to which the move online has been driven by declining enrollments in the on-campus space. The need to improve access and declining state funding are also real, but the total enrollment shift is a significant factor.
Given what has been happening in the community college space over the last several years, it is not surprising that more colleges are seeking to add fully online courses and programs to attract students.
The decline in community college enrollments is well documented as seen in the chart below.
What you don’t get from the chart is the impact and the real change that these percentages mean. Even after adjusting for sector switching (where community colleges offer a handful of bachelor’s degrees and get reclassified in IPEDS), community college enrollment has gone down nearly 30% in the past decade.
But aren’t enrollments turning around?
Last week the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center published its latest enrollment report with seemingly good news for higher education. Undergraduate enrollment increased 2.1% from Fall 2022 to Fall 2023, and community colleges are up 4.1% compared to Fall 2021. This is good news for community colleges generally, and it raises the questions if the bump in overall enrollment might reverse trends for fully online enrollment.
As you dig into the numbers it gets somewhat complicated. Freshman enrollment is down, which is surely not a good sign. And as Inside Higher Ed points out, 40% of the growth enrollment in community colleges comes from dual enrollment (where high school students get dual credit for high school and college through special courses). As we have pointed out before in this LINK (and has been discussed elsewhere), dual enrollment is good for colleges and students as a concept, but it doesn’t do a lot to help revenues and can mask structural declines. Policies vary by state, but not all colleges get tuition for dually enrolled students and the amount the state subsidizes dually enrolled students varies.
While there is some good news with the NSC Fall 2023 data, the uptick in current enrollments is not necessarily going to solve the enrollment and revenue challenge many community colleges are facing, and online growth seems likely to continue. Especially when combined with changing student preferences. But what are the implications for community colleges of this long-term, and at times dramatic, increase in online students?
A structural change among community college students
It is a big shift for community colleges (which are typically under resourced) to go from a relatively small number of online students to, in some cases, being majority online in ten-year period. The challenge comes in three, related, ways.
The kinds of students that are enrolling online tend to be different than those enrolling on-campus. We would expect to see more non-traditional students in terms of age, but also more students working full-time and with family commitments.
Online learning requires a different set of supports and infrastructure to be done successfully. This goes beyond technology, to include support such as advising, policies and tutoring.
For the traditional age increase in online enrollments (even if less than for older students), this group (age 18 – 22 pursuing two-year degrees) has needed the greatest amount of support and has historically had low retention and graduation rates.
How well colleges are coping with these structural changes and challenges varies widely. Some institutions such as the Northern Virginia Community Colleges have been growing online for some time and have responded to much of the change. Other, smaller colleges are and will continue to struggle more.
Community colleges are seeing some small signs of relief as enrollment trends upwards. But revenue pressures remain, and increasingly online learning is being seen to alleviate those pressures. There are real implications for community colleges, but it is also shifting the overall profile of online learning, away from a heavy focus on graduate and professional degrees towards more undergraduate and vocational focus.
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