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US Higher Education Enrollment Trends by Distance Education Type, 2012-2019

Earlier this week I shared a profile of US online education enrollment based on the new IPEDS Fall 2019 data set – the final pre-pandemic national distance education (DE) profile. To put the numbers in context, we should look at the trends since IPEDS started tracking online enrollment in Fall 2012.

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.

US Higher Ed Enrollment Trends Fall 2012 - 2019 by Student DE Status

In this view showing total enrollments by DE type, we can see the persistent decline in total enrollment for US higher education, dropping from 20.7 to 19.7 million from 2012 to 2019, although the decline was smaller 2018 – 19 than in past years. Beyond that, we have consistent trends where the number of students taking no online courses has dropped even further, from 15.3 to 12.3 million, while the number of students taking exclusively online courses has risen from 2.6 to 3.5 million, and students taking some but not all online courses has risen from 2.7 to 3.9 million.

Since the total enrollments are changing, it is worth looking at how the various sectors contribute to these changes by first viewing the total enrollment differences from 2012 data.

US Higher Ed Enrollment Differences Fall 2012 - 2019 by Sector

The enrollment changes over the past seven years is highly correlated with sector. Public 4-year institutions have increased enrollment by 1.0 million while public 2-year institutions have decreased by 1.4 million – even more than the for-profit sectors. The for-profit sectors (both 2-year and 4-year) increased enrollment over the past year by a combined 8 thousand. While that is a small change, it is the first increase in a decade.

Looking further at the percentage of total enrollment per year, and combining the exclusive DE and some DE categories into students taking at least one online course, we can see the long-term trend. But note that this situation changes completely in March 2020, with the massive shift to emergency remote teaching.

Percentage of US Higher Ed enrollment 2012 - 2019 of students taking at least one online class

The percentage of students taking online courses has risen from 26.1% to 37.3% since 2012.

In the view below we combine DE enrollment trends by degree type (for students taking at least one online course), by DE type, and by exclusive DE location.

Views of DE enrollment differences 2012 - 2019 by degree type, by DE type, and by exclusive DE location

While graduate degrees have been the sweet spot for exclusively online education, the number of undergraduate students taking at least one online course has grown faster than for graduate students. And the increase in students taking some but not all courses online has grown faster than students taking all online courses. For undergrads, it is far more common to have students in a mixed mode – taking some online courses and some face-to-face courses – and a small amount of decrease in the growth rate.

When looking at the student location when taking exclusively online courses, the rate of growth for students residing in the same state as the institution has outpaced students residing in a different state.

Up next, a view of the largest DE enrollments per institution.