Higher Education

New NCES Study Confirms Ascendency of Online Learning

By Cait Etherington
November 11, 2018

A new study by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) confirms that online learning is on the rise. The study released in early November suggests that despite dropping enrollments at the postsecondary level, the number of distance education students continues to rise at most types of institutions. This trend holds true at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Key Findings of the NCES Study

According to the NCES’s Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2017; and Financial Statistics and Academic Libraries, Fiscal Year 2017, “the percentage of students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses in fall 2017 varied by institutional control” but “approximately 49 percent of the 1.3 million students enrolled at private for-profit institutions were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses.” This is a strong indicator that online learning is on the rise.

Profile of Distance Education Students in 2017

The NCES report not only confirms that online learning is on the rise but also drills down to offer insight into both undergraduate and graduate trends. A few key findings include the following:

  • Not surprisingly, there are still more undergraduate than graduate students pursuing distance education: 1.46 million undergraduates students are enrolled in fully distant courses compared to 886,000 graduate students.
  • 245,265 undergraduates are enrolled in distance education programs at “exclusively distance education institutions” and the highest percentage of these students are at private for-profit institutions.
  • At the graduate level, private for-profit institutions also dominate in the “exclusively distance education institution” category offering additional evidence that online learning is on the rise.
  • At the undergraduate and graduate levels, most students are still not enrolled in any distance education courses at all, but compared to pervious years, the numbers are on the rise overall.
  • In Fall 2016, 1,913,646 students were enrolled in some distance education courses; by 2017, this number had crept up to 2,114,539.
  • At the graduate level, the number of students enrolled in some distance education courses dropped slightly between 2016 and 2017; in fall 2016, 275,952 graduate students reported taking some distance education courses but by 2017, this number has slipped slightly.
  • Comparative data from 2016 to 2017 also suggests that alternative pathways (e.g., online coding academies) may be declining: In 2016, 974 students were enrolled in exclusively online private for-profit programs but this dropped to 516 in 2017. The change may reflect the fact that during this time, a growing number of public and private non-profit colleges and universities started to partner with for-profits (e.g., companies such as Trilogy) to offer similar programs.

Why Online Learning Is On the Rise

There are several reasons why online learning is on the rise. Chief among these reasons are the notable financial benefits. Distance education programs can often be completed at a fraction of the cost of on-campus programs. This is especially true as MOOC providers, such as Coursera and Udacity, increasingly partner with prestigious private institutions to create innovative new degree pathways, specifically at the graduate level. But private for-profits are also changing the landscape. Over the past decade, coding academies have emerged as a viable way to gain in-demand tech skills without spending thousands of dollars and four years completing an on-campus computer science degree.

However, money may not be the only reason why distance education courses and programs are now on the rise. Today’s students are digital natives who have grown up learning and playing online. These students don’t necessarily assume that online communication is any less valuable than talking to someone face-to-face, and they are bringing their perspective to bear on their expectations for higher education. As a result, today’s students increasingly expect to learn when and where it is most convenient for them, and this means that each year, more and more students opt to complete some or all of the education online rather than in a traditional classroom.

A final reason why online learning is on the rise is related to the massive disruptions now reshaping the workforce. As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, many existing job categories will disappear while others will develop. Indeed, we already face major shortages in some new fields, including machine learning, while many other jobs are dying out. This has already led some employers, including AT&T, to embrace online learning in an attempt to re-skill its workforce. AT&T has partnered with MOOC provider Udacity to offer affordable online master’s degrees at Georgia Tech.

Given all the above factors, it seems likely that next year’s NCES study will also reveal steady increases in the number of distance education courses, programs, and students at the postsecondary level.