March 22, 2018

Dispelling some myths about distance education in the USA

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

Distance education on a roll in the USA

Seaman, J.E., Allen, I.E., and Seaman, J. (2018) Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States Wellesley MA: The Babson Survey Research Group

Boy, does that guy Jeff Seaman keep busy! Hard on the heels of quarter-backing the national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education, here he is with colleagues producing an even more comprehensive update on online and distance education in the USA.

There are several things though that make this report different, both from the Canadian study and previous Babson Reports:

  • first, online enrolments are now placed firmly in the context of overall student enrolments in the USA. While overall enrolments in the US higher education system have slowly declined (by almost 4% between 2012 to 2016), online enrolments have grown by about 5% over the same period. In comparison online enrolments in Canada grew by 40% in universities and by 60% in two year colleges over the same five year period, while overall enrolments grew slightly (by around 2%).
  • There are now fewer students studying on campus than at any point since 2012 in the USA. There are now over a million fewer students coming to campus in 2016 than there were in 2012.

  • As of Fall 2016, there were 6,359,121 students taking at least one distance education course, comprising 31.6% of all higher education enrollments. So online and distance students have been shoring up student enrolments in the USA over the last five years.
  • 83% of distance students are taking undergraduate courses and 17% post-graduate courses.
  • There are wide variations between the different HE sectors in the USA, both in terms of overall enrollments, and also distance education enrollments. Overall enrollments grew modestly in the public and private not-for-profit institutions over the four years but declined dramatically in public two year colleges (down 14%) and even more so in the private, for profit sector (down 32% and 40% respectively for four year and two year colleges).
  • For-profit institutions have seen their total distance education enrollments decrease during these time periods. These changes of course occurred before the Trump election and reflect the impact of the Obama administration’s regulatory efforts. It will be interesting to see how things change if at all during the Trump administration.
  • The majority of distance education students in the USA (69%) are in public institutions.
  • Distance education is generally local. The vast majority (84%) of students taking exclusively distance courses enrolled at public institutions are located in the same state as the institution.
  • Distance education is not international in the USA: In Fall 2016, there were only 45,475 students located outside of the United States taking exclusively distance courses. This represents only 1.5% of students taking exclusively distance courses, and only 0.7% of all distance education students.
  • Students enrolled in distance education remain highly concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions. Almost half of distance education students are accounted for in just 5% of institutions: the 235 institutions that represent only 5.0% of the higher education universe command 47% (2,985,347) of the student distance enrollments. The top 47 institutions, representing only 1.0% of all institutions, enroll 22.4% (1,421,703) of all distance students. This is very different from Canada, where distance education students are much more evenly distributed across almost all institutions.
  • There are wide variations between the different U.S. states. The report provides a breakdown of online enrolments for each state.
  • The study identifies the 50 institutions with the most distance education enrollments. The top seven are:

  • The enrollment data for this report uses information from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) database.  IPEDS is a national census of postsecondary institutions in the U.S., which represents the most comprehensive data available. No such comprehensive post-secondary education data are publicly available in Canada.

This report indicates the value of an openly accessible national system of tracking online and distance education enrolments. Institutions must provide the data, especially as it influences federal state aid to students. Once such data are made publicly available, there are opportunities for all kinds of analyses to be made. The value though is that this is just part of a national program of data collection on higher education enrolments. We are nowhere close to matching this in Canada.

In the USA, fully online enrollments continue to grow in 2014

Image: WCET, 2015

Image: WCET, 2015

Straut, T.T. and Poulin, R. (2015) Highlights of Distance Education Trends from IPEDS Fall 2014, WCET Frontiers, 21 December


WCET (the Western Co-operative for Educational Technology) has once again done an excellent job in analysing the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES)’  Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data that reports Distance Education (DE) student enrollment for the Fall of 2014.


Enrollments by students ‘Exclusively in Distance Education’ continued to rise in 2014. There were 2,824,334 fully online enrollments in 2014, compared to 2,659,203 in 2013, representing a 6% increase in just one year, or just under 13% of total enrollments.

Students taking at least some fully online courses but not an entirely fully online program also increased, from 2,806,048 in 2013 to 2,926,083 in 2014 (a 4% increase). [Note: these are not students taking blended or hybrid courses, but taking some fully online courses as well as campus-based courses.]

At the same time overall enrollments dropped slightly (just under 1%). Thus online learning continues to grow faster than conventional higher education. Taken together at least 28% of all U.S. higher education students are taking at least some fully online courses.

Image: WCET, 2015

Image: WCET, 2015

However, perhaps more interesting is where this growth occurred. The biggest increase in fully online courses came from the more prestigious private, non-profit sector (22% increase), while the for-profit sector (UofPhoenix, etc.) actually declined by 11%.  Indeed, the for-profit sector now accounts for less than one third of all fully online enrollments.


The IPEDS data is relatively new (this is the third year of reporting). There are problems of definition (‘distance education’ and ‘fully online’ are not necessarily the same), and there appears in past years to have been inconsistent reporting across institutions.

WCET will be following up on this initial report with more detailed reports in 2016, including an analysis of the reliability of the data.


Despite the cautions, this data, based on a census of all U.S. higher education institutions, is probably the most reliable to date.

Despite the (assumed) growth in blended learning, fully online learning appears to be more than holding its own. One reason is clear. Many of the more prestigious private, non-profit institutions have room to grow in their adoption of online learning, being slower initially to move in this direction.

To what extent this growth of online learning in the private, non-profit sector is owed to the publicity from or experience with MOOCs remains to be assessed, but the growth of for-credit online learning in this sector is an indication of the increasingly broad acceptance now of fully online learning.

What is needed now is more data on – and clearer definitions of – blended learning, as it seems reasonable to assume that as on-campus programs become more flexible through blended learning, this will impact eventually on fully online enrollments. But kudos to the U.S. Department of Education for setting up these surveys and to WCET in helping with the analysis. Now if only Canada…….Justin?

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: WCET’s analysis of distance education enrolments in the USA

Out-of-state students 2

Russell Poulin and Terri Straut have done an invaluable analysis of recent data on distance education enrolments in the USA in the following three blog posts:

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Higher Ed Sectors Vary Greatly in Distance Ed Enrollments Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Distance Education Data Reveals More Than Overall Flat Growth Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Less than Half of Fully Distant Students Come from Other States Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

These reports should be read in conjunction with these equally valuable posts:

Hill, P. and Poulin, R. (2014) Investigation of IPEDS Distance Education Data: System Not Ready for Modern Trends Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies/e-Literate

Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States  Wellesley MA: Babson College/Quahog Research Group

I am pulling this together in this one post for convenience, but I strongly recommend that you read carefully the original reports.

There are serious methodological issues in the USA data

Over the last ten years or so, the most consistent analyses of enrolments in online learning have been the annual Babson College surveys conducted by Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, with support from the Sloan Foundation. However, this was a voluntary survey, based on a carefully drawn sample of chief academic officers across the USA. The Babson Surveys showed consistent growth of online course enrolments in the order of 10-20 per cent per annum over a the last 10 years, compared with around 2-3 per cent growth in on-campus enrolments, with in 2013 approximately one third of all higher education students in the USA taking at least one fully online course.

However, since the Babson surveys were voluntary, sample-based and dependent on the good will of participating institutions, there was always a concern about the reliability of the data, and especially that the returns might be somewhat biased towards enrolments from institutions actively engaged in online learning, thus suggesting more online enrolments than in reality. Despite these possible limitations the Babson Surveys were invaluable because they provided a comparable set of national data across several years. So while the actual numbers may be a little shaky, the trends were consistent.

Then in 2012 the U.S. Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Federal Department of Education, for the first time included distance education in its compulsory annual survey of enrolments in higher education. (One might ask why it took until 2012 to ask for data on distance education, but hey, it’s a start.) Since this is a census rather than a survey, and since it is obligatory, one would expect that the IPEDS data would be more reliable than the Babson surveys.

However, it turns out that there are also major problems with the IPEDS survey. Phil Hill (of the blog e-Literate) and Russell Poulin have indicated the following limitations with IPEDS:

  • problems of definition: Babson focused only on students enrolled in fully online courses; IPEDS asks for enrolments in distance education. Although many institutions have moved their print-based courses online, there are still many print-based distance education courses still out there. How many? We don’t know. Also the IPEDS definition rules out reporting on blended or hybrid courses, and is not precise enough to ensure that different institutions don’t interpret who to include and who to exclude on a consistent basis
  • under-reporting: IPEDS collected data on the assumption that all students enrolled through continuing education departments were taking non-credit distance education courses, and therefore these enrolments were to be excluded. However, in many institutions, continuing education departments have continued to administer for-credit online courses, which institutions have seen as just another form of distance education. (In other institutions, distance education departments have been integrated with central learning technology units, and are thus included in enrolment counts.)
  • the IPEDS survey does not work for innovative programs such as those with continuous enrolments, competency-based learning, or hybrid courses.

Hill and Poulin come to the following conclusions about the 2012 survey:

  • we don’t know the numbers – there are too many flaws in the the data collection methods
  • thus the 2012 numbers are not a credible baseline for future comparisons
  • there are hundreds of thousands of students who have never been reported on any IPEDS survey that has ever been conducted.

It is against this background that we should now examine the recent analyses by Straut and Poulin on the IPEDS data for  2013. However, note their caveat:

Given the errors that we found in colleges reporting to IPEDS, the Fall 2012 distance education reported enrollments create a very unstable base for comparisons.

Main results for 2013

1. Most DE enrolments are in public universities

For those outside the USA, there are quite different types of HE institution, dependent on whether they are publicly funded or privately funded, and whether they operate for profit or not for profit. Distance education is often associated in the USA with diploma mills, or offered by for-profit private institutions, such as the University of Phoenix or Kaplan. As it turns out, this is a fundamental mis-conception. Nearly three-quarters of all DE enrolments are in publicly funded universities. Less than 10% of all DE enrolments are in for-profit private institutions.

2. Students studying exclusively at a distance

Students studying exclusively at a distance constitute about 13% of all enrolments. However, non-profits rely much more on distance students, who make up half their enrolments. Less than 10% of students in public universities are studying exclusively at a distance. The significance of this is that for most students in public universities, DE is a relatively small part of their studies, an option that they exercise occasionally and as needed, and is not seen as a replacement for campus-based studies. On the other hand, there is a substantial if small minority for whom DE is the only option, and for many of these, the for-profits are their the only option if their local public universities do not offer such programs in the discipline they want.

3. DE enrolments were down slightly in 2013

IPEDS shows an overall decrease in DE enrolments of 4% from 2012 to 2013. The biggest area was the for-profits, which declined by 17%. The drop in public universities for those taking fully online courses was a marginal 2%. However, this is a major difference from the trends identified by the Babson Surveys.

This is probably the most contentious of the conclusions, because the differences are relatively small and probably within the margin of error, given the unreliability of the data. The for-profit sector has been particularly badly hit by changes to federal financial aid for students.

However, I have been predicting that the rate of students taking fully online courses in the USA (and Canada) is likely to slow in the future for two reasons:

  • there is a limit to the market for fully online studies and after 10 years of fairly large gains, it is not surprising that the rate now appears to be slowing down
  • as more and more courses are offered in a hybrid mode, students have another option besides fully online for flexible study.

The counter trend is that public universities still have much more scope for increasing enrolments in fully online professional masters programs, as well as for certificates, diplomas and badges.

4. Students studying fully online are still more likely to opt for a local university

Just over half of all students enrolled exclusively in DE courses take their courses from within state. This figure jumps to between 75-90% for those enrolled in a public university. On the other hand, 70% of students enrolled in a DE course in a for-profit take their courses from out-of-state. This is not surprising, since although non-profits have to have their headquarters somewhere, they operate on a national basis.

The proportion of institutions reporting that they serve students who are outside the U.S. remains small, no more than 2% in any sector. This again may be a reporting anomaly, as 21% of institutions reported that they have students located outside the U.S. Probably of more concern is that many institutions did not report data on the location of their DE students. This may have something to do with the need for authorization for institutions to operate outside the home state, and this is a uniquely American can of worms that I don’t intend to open.

Not good, but it’s better than nothing

I have an uncomfortable feeling about the IPEDS data. It needs to be better, and it’s hard to draw any conclusions or make policy decisions on what we have seen so far.

However, it’s easy for someone outside the USA to criticise the IPEDS data, but at least it’s an attempt to measure what is an increasingly significant – and highly complex – area of higher education. We have nothing similar in Canada. At least the IPEDS data is likely to improve over time, as institutions press for clearer definitions, and are forced to collect better and more consistent data.

Also, I can’t praise too highly first of all Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman for their pioneering efforts to collect data in this area, and Phil Hill, Russell Poulin and Terri Straut for guiding us through the minefield of IPEDS data.

For a nice infographic on this topic from WCET, click on the image below:

WCET infographic 2

WCET’s analysis of U.S. statistics on distance education


U.S.Department of Education (2014) Web Tables: Enrollment in Distance Education Courses, by State: Fall 2012 Washington DC: U.S.Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics

Hill, P. and Poulin, R. (2014) A response to new NCES report on distance education e-Literate, June 11

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences operates a National Center for Education Statistics which in turn runs the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS is:

a system of interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). IPEDS gathers information from every college, university, and technical and vocational institution that participates in the federal student financial aid programs. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, requires that institutions that participate in federal student aid programs report data on enrollments, program completions, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional prices, and student financial aid. These data are made available to students and parents through the College Navigator college search Web site and to researchers and others through the IPEDS Data Center

Recently IPEDS released “Web Tables” containing results from their Fall Enrollment 2012 survey. This was the first survey in over a decade to include institutional enrollment counts for distance education students. In the article above, Phil Hill of e-Literate and Russell Poulin of WCET have co-written a short analysis of the Web Tables released by IPEDS.

The Hill and Poulin analysis

The main points they make are as follows:

  • overall the publication of the web tables in the form of a pdf is most welcome, in particular by providing a breakdown of IPEDS data by different variables such as state jurisdiction, control of institution, sector and student level
  • according to the IPEDS report there were just over 5.4 million students enrolled in distance education courses in the fall semester 2012 (NOTE: this number refers to students, NOT course enrollments).
  • roughly a quarter of all post-secondary students in the USA are enrolled in a distance education course.
  • the bulk of students in the USA taking distance education courses are in publicly funded institutions (85% of those taking at least some DE courses), although about one third of those taking all their classes at a distance are in private, for-profit institutions (e.g. University of Phoenix)
  • these figures do NOT include MOOC enrollments
  • as previously identified by Phil Hill in e-Literate, there is major discrepancy in the number of students taking at least one online course between the IPEDS study and the regular annual surveys conducted by Allen and Seaman at Babson College – 7.1 million for Babson and 5.5 million for IPEDS. Jeff Seaman, one of the two Babson authors, is also quoted in e-Literate on his interpretation of the differences. Hill and Poulin comment that the NCES report would have done well to at least refer to the significant differences.
  • Hill and Poulin claim that there has been confusion over which students get counted in IPEDS reporting and which do not. They suspect that there is undercounting in the hundreds of thousands, independent of distance education status.


There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Nevertheless, although the IPEDS data may not be perfect, it does a pretty good job of collecting data on distance education students across the whole of the USA. However, it does not distinguish between mode of delivery of distance education (are there still mainly print-based courses around)?

So we now have two totally independent analyses of distance education students in the USA, with a minimum number of 5.5 million and a maximum number of 7.1 million, i.e. between roughly a quarter and a third of all post-secondary students. From the Allen and Seaman longitudinal studies, we can also reasonably safely assume that online enrollments have been increasing between 10-20% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with overall enrollments of 2-5% per annum.

By contrast, in Canada we have no national data on either online or distance education students. It’s hard to see how Canadian governments or institutions can take evidence-based policy decisions about online or distance education without such basic information.

Lastly, thank you, Phil and Russ, for a very helpful analysis of the IPEDs report.


For a more detailed analysis, see also:

Haynie, D. (2014) New Government Data Sheds Light on Online Learners US News, June 13