Online enrollment slows, but still beats traditional enrollment

Survey finds distance learning essential to schools' strategic plans, lack of faculty support

Higher education online course enrollment did rise in 2014—but it grew at the slowest rate in more than 10 years, according to a new survey.

For the 12th annual report, researchers from the Babson Survey Research Group examined responses from about 2,800 academic leaders from private and public non-profits and for-profit institutions.

They found the number of students taking at least one online course in 2014 grew just 3.7% from the year before, supporting prior findings that such enrollment is stagnating. However, the digital classes still account for about 75% of America's college and university enrollment growth, says co-author Jeff Seaman, Babson's co-director.  

Has the online course market reached saturation? The data says…

Most of the slowdown might be caused by a drop in online enrollment at for-profit institutions, because both public and private nonprofits reported their distance learning enrollments grew.

But the survey also found the creation of new MOOCs is stalling: just 8% of colleges and universities offer one, and only 5.6% say they are currently developing new ones. The proportion of respondents who say MOOCs are a sustainable way to deliver online courses dropped, as well.

"We are now seeing colleges and universities take a much more strategic approach to creating program offerings that are scalable, sustainable, and personalized to improve academic and employment outcomes for learners," says Todd Hitchcock, SVP of Pearson Online Learning Services.

While more academic leaders than ever—70.8%—said online programs are essential to their long-term strategies, faculty support remains low. Just 28% of leaders say their faculty members back the "value and legitimacy of online education."

Meanwhile, 74.1% of academic leaders continue to believe online education learning outcomes are equal to or superior than traditional classroom learning (Online Learning Consortium release, 2/5; Kelly, Campus Technology, 2/5).

The takeaway: Enrollment in online courses slowed last year but continued to outpace traditional classroom growth.

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