Source: WCET, via IPEDS

Taylor-Straut, T. (2018) Distance Education Enrollment Growth – Major Differences Persist Among Sectors Boulder CO: WCET, 1 March

This is another valuable analysis by the WCET of the 2016 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data that reports distance education course enrollments in the USA. This is the fourth year that IPEDS have been collecting such data, and Terri Taylor-Straut looks at some of the trends in both overall enrollment and distance education enrollment in the USA over that period.

Myth no. 1: most DE in the USA is from the for-profit universities

There are various ways to calculate this, but enrollments in for-profits such as University of Phoenix, Laureate, Kaplan, etc., constitute about 13% of all post-secondary distance education enrollments. Most students taking distance education courses in the USA take them from public institutions (70%). In fact more students take DE courses from not-for-profit private universities than from for-profits (18%). That is a change from 2012, when the for-profits had about 20% of all DE enrollments, compared with about 16% for the not-for profits.

Myth no. 2: The U.S. HE system is continuing to grow

Overall enrollments are down by 4% from 2012 to 2016. Enrollments in the public universities are down 2% over the same period. However, overall enrollments for the for-profits are down by 34%. Enrollments in the private, not-for-profits were up 2%.

Myth no. 3: DE enrollments have reached their peak

While overall enrollments are slightly down over the four years, DE enrollments increased by 17% overall, despite a drop of 22% in enrollments in the for-profits. What is really interesting is that the private not-for-profits DE enrollments were up nearly 50% over the same period. DE enrollments in the public sector increased by 20%.

Myth no. 4: Higher education in the USA is largely private

As the report concludes:

public institutions continue to educate the vast majority of students, both on campus and by distance education courses.

See chart at the head of this post for the evidence.


WCET has no intention to place value judgments on the different sectors or the results from IPEDS. I however have no such compunction (long live the border).

I draw two conclusions from these data:

  • publicly funded higher education is still the main driver of higher education in the U.S. Any attempt to weaken it by funding cuts at the state level, or by reducing student financial aid at the federal level, will have a disproportionately large negative effect on US higher education overall;
  • distance education, or probably more accurately, fully online learning, no longer is tainted with the stain of lower quality but is now increasingly accepted as a valuable addition to higher education offerings, even, or especially, by the more prestigious private, not-for-profit universities.

I will be interested in your comments (especially from across the border!)

Further reading

T. Bates (2018) Is distance education stealing on-campus students? Online learning and distance education resources, 1 February


  1. Tony –
    I think you real nailed the analysis.
    As for quality in distance education…
    – other surveys show that there are still the majority of faculty who have nothing to do with online learning and still believe it is less quality.
    – frankly, some is bad and some is quality…but that difference remains regardless of modality and has much to do with local support.
    – obviously the public is voting with their feet….or laptops.

  2. Tony,
    Grad Student at UMUC. This sounded like you stated US DE program has reached Wave 4. Is this what I am reading into or what wave does this refer to. “distance education, or probably more accurately,” fully online learning”, no longer is tainted with the stain of lower quality but is now increasingly accepted as a valuable addition to higher education offerings, even, or especially, by the more prestigious private, not-for-profit universities” Bates (2018)

    • Not sure I can link the current state of development in US DE to any particular wave in that I am not sure whether there will ever be a final state. In fact I think it will become much more integrated with campus-based teaching through blended/hybrid learning so the distinction between ‘distance’ and ‘on-campus’ will be increasingly difficult. All students will be learning online to some extent and hopefully that extent will be determined as much by the learner’s context and needs as by institutional requirements. But I agree, we are not there yet.

  3. In the Bay Area where I reside (originally from Austria), public education is still very strong with a a big tradition for excellence. Online education is available but mostly in the private sector, I agree with Russ that online learning is believed to be less quality for a large category of the locals. I think it largely depends on the field you’re taking, if your job description is more on the high tech end, DE hardly is a handicap.



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