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Study: More Students Are Enrolling in Online Courses

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Enrollment in online courses rose at a faster pace between fall 2015 and 2016 compared with the previous three years, yet students are increasingly choosing local online degree programs, according to the “Grade Increase” report released today by the Babson Survey Research Group.

Based on federal data from more than 4,700 colleges and universities, more than 6.3 million students in the U.S. – most of whom were undergraduates – took at least one online course in fall 2016, a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year. This is the 14th consecutive year that Babson has reported growth in online enrollment.

“No matter how much we think that there might be something slowing it down, it hasn’t happened,” says Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group and a co-author of the study. Even in bad economic times, for example, he says enrollment has only gone up.

Public colleges and universities had the largest growth in online course enrollment between fall 2015 and 2016, at 7.3 percent, the report found. Roughly two-thirds of all online students enroll in programs at public schools.

Online class enrollment at private nonprofit schools rose 7.1 percent but continued dropping at for-profits – this year by 4.5 percent, the findings show. For-profit, online schools have faced criticism in recent years for questionable recruitment practices and low graduation rates, among other things.

Also among the report’s key findings: In 2016, 56.1 percent of students who took only online courses resided in the same state as their institution – a figure that has risen steadily from 50.3 percent in 2012.

When Babson started reviewing these data several years ago, “all the schools that were starting online had this vision that if you build it, they will come, and they will come from all over the world,” says I. Elaine Allen, also co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group and a co-author of the report. But she says that hasn’t really been the case.

As previous editions of the Babson survey similarly revealed, many online students live within 50 miles of their school’s campus, Allen points out.

This is especially common among online-only students at public schools, where 84.2 percent live in the same state as where the college or university is based, according to the report. To compare, slightly more than one-third of online-only students at private institutions and 16.5 percent of those at for-profits live in the same state as their institution.

Allen says potentially cheaper in-state tuition may be one factor that draws prospective online students to local public universities, even if they plan to strictly complete their coursework virtually – although experts say online schools vary on offering different tuition based on residency.

In addition to cost, experts say many online students still want access to on-campus resources. Prospective online students are also often more familiar with local public schools, Seaman says.

“It’s the school their co-workers went to; it’s the school that they see the billboard for or the placard on the subway for or something like that – all of which are very, very locally oriented,” he says.

The opportunity to possibly switch between on-campus and online learning may also contribute to the general appeal of locally based online degree programs. Nearly 53 percent of students who took at least one online course in 2016 also enrolled in an on-ground class, according to the survey – a figure that has held steady in recent years, the co-authors say.

“The anytime, anywhere piece – they like that, at least for a portion of what they’re doing,” Seaman says. “The second reason tended to be scheduling; it made it possible to do the right courses to get your degree that you could not necessarily do – or do conveniently – if you were taking all on-ground courses.”

Here are additional key findings from the report:

• Enrollment numbers in online classes varies widely from state to state, says Julia Seaman, research director for Babson and a co-author of the study. New Hampshire, West Virginia and Utah are among those that draw the greatest proportion of out-of-state, online-only students.

• Online course enrollment is highly concentrated, with just 5 percent of schools accounting for nearly half of all online students.

• Even though Seaman says a large number of students based overseas pursue U.S. online degree programs, they comprise less than 1 percent of all online students.

• Between 2012 and 2016, the total number of students studying strictly on a physical campus dropped by more than 1 million, or 6.4 percent.


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