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The Complexities of Online Education and Fall 2020 Enrollment Data
Like many observers, I’ve been trying to digest more information from the Mother of All Updates from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), which reported undergraduate enrollment dropping 4.0%, community college dropping 9.4%, graduate increasing 2.7%, and enrollment from first-time beginning students down 16.1%. The headline stories have mostly focused on the likely long-term impacts on community colleges and their target student population, but there are more lessons to be learned.
Migration to Lower-Cost Options Overwhelmed by Enrollment Avoidance
On the surface, this argument made a lot of sense. If students are forced into a remote teaching, or even hybrid, scenario without significant campus experiences, then many will seek out roughly equivalent online programs in lower-cost community colleges until mostly on-campus life can continue. While this migration may be happening in some cases, the much bigger trend comes from students just not enrolling. By far community colleges are taking the biggest enrollment hits despite their very low costs.
Inside Higher Ed’s Dean Dad called this situation out when the first NSC fall report came out, importantly describing the difference between low tuition and affordability.
With the new data, the situation is even more extreme than what Dean Dad described – a 9.4% drop in community college enrollment and a 23% drop in first-time student enrollment in that sector. At the same time, across the board graduate programs are seeing increased enrollment as are more expensive for-profit undergraduate programs. The situation is obviously more complex than the pandemic leading a significant shift to lower-tuition community colleges.
Students Who Had No Desire for Online Programs Want On-Campus Options
What many people tend to forget this year is that despite the rapid shift to remote for almost all college students in the spring, these same students have different expectations and needs in terms of learning modality. While the number of students who want mostly or fully online programs has been growing for decades, the majority still want fully on-campus options, perhaps augmented with a few online courses here and there. What the NSC data along with anecdotal observations show us is that emergency remote teaching may have saved us in the spring and summer, but it is not a viable long-term strategy. Especially for disadvantaged students, as described in Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of NSC.
And there are clearly winners and losers in terms of institutions and fall enrollment – many campuses that have reopened (with significant health protocols) are having significant enrollment increases. Much of this observation is anecdotal, but there does seem to be an underlying theme confirming that the market demand for on-campus education has not gone away. And this demand is starting to show up in the data.
There have been many disappointments and cases of mismanagement, for example at UNC Chapel Hill, leading to students being sent home or into quarantine. These situations are real and show the peril of reopening, but at the same time the data seem to show a strong, pent-up demand for on-campus education options.
The False Dilemma of Primarily Online Institutions
At the same time, the NSC data show a strong increase in enrollments for what they term Primarily Online Institutions, or POI. As a note, NSC uses IPEDS data from Fall 2018 and defines POI as schools where 90% or more of their total enrollments come from exclusively online students. Think of the national for-profit chains (e.g. Walden University, University of Phoenix, Capella University), the big private nonprofits (e.g. Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Excelsior College but not Liberty University), and some publics (e.g. Penn State World Campus, CSU Global Campus, University of Maryland Global Campus, Purdue Global).
For these schools, their enrollments are up across the board, albeit much more for part-time than full-time students.
Arizona State University is an interesting case, as they are not a POI, but they do have a large online presence they have cultivated for two decades. ASU’s enrollment is up for both online and on-campus options.
In fact, ASU probably gives insight into how to avoid thinking of a false dilemma of whether students want on-campus or online. That school is an example of one that offers both on-campus and has a long-term commitment and investment in online programs. And it appears that ASU has been hit with the decreasing enrollment of first-year students, which they describe in terms of their long-term growth.
Putting It Together
The story is emerging, and we still have much to learn over the coming months, but there are some themes to consider.
For those students who never wanted an online program, the fall enrollment data are starting to show many of them voting with their feet and choosing schools that offer on-campus options with meaningful campus life. But for those students who either prefer online or that accept that they must continue with remote teaching, there appears to be a preference to work with schools that already know how to run online courses and programs. Schools with real experience teaching online, that have developed online support structures and improved services over a matter of years, not months.
Stephanie Moore provides a more pithy version of this blog post on Twitter.
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