Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States

The Sloan Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group (an organization based at Babson College in Massachusetts) released their sixth annual report on the state of online higher education last November and I recently revisited the report.  Titled, “Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States,” there are several elements contained therein that I feel are worth noting here.

Attempting to answer “the fundamental questions about the nature and extent of online education,” the report addresses several topics that provide evidence that the “nature and extent” of online education is growing rapidly in the United States.  The report begins by noting the significant increases in enrollments in online colleges and universities.  According to the authors, in the fall of 2007, some 3.9 million students were taking at least one online course, representing a twelve percent increase over the previous year.  The growth in enrollments for higher education as a whole grew at only 1.2 percent.  The report notes that in total, 20 percent of all US college and university students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2007 semester.

In considering the motivations for students to enroll in online education programs, the report cites the rising cost of fuel, the flexible nature of online learning, and the overall economic downturn as reasons stated by students.  While the cost of fuel has recently decreased, the situation caused many adult students to opt for online programs that do not require them to commute to classes regardless of the cost.  Online education offers students the flexibility of completing course work on a schedule that is often more suitable for adult students who are frequently juggling full-time jobs, families, and other obligations.  The economic downturn, according to the Sloan Consortium, impacts enrollments in online universities because as jobs become scarcer, potential employees realize that bulking up their academic credentials may help in their job searches.  People who already have jobs often go back to school in the midst of an economic downturn in an attempt to provide additional job security.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Sloan Consortium report is that it considers the motivations of online professors as well as students.  Online professors who responded to the survey indicated that they enjoyed the flexibility that online formats provide in meeting the needs of students.  Online professors are in a position to utilize new technologies to enhance the student’s learning experience in a way that traditional classrooms often do not.  Many faculty members cited the need or desire for additional income as another motivation for teaching online.  This again speaks to the impact of the economic downturn in the growing role of online higher education in America.

Not only are students and many faculty migrating to online formats, many in the higher education industry are beginning to see purely online institutions as potential competition for students.  Whereas once large brick and mortar universities felt little pinch from online institutions luring their students from enrollment, today they are beginning to express some concern over the loss of “traditional” students to online institutions.  Perhaps it is for this reason that many institutions are beginning to offer some online courses to students.  According to the Sloan Consortium’s report, “fully one in five institutions with online courses introduced their first offerings this past year.” 

Interestingly, however, the authors note that the number of institutions that state that they feel that online course offerings are a “critical” part of the long-term future of their institutions has reached a plateau this year.  Certainly, many institutions have managed to achieve such brand recognition that they worry little over significant changes in the higher education industry; they are nearly guaranteed significant volumes of applicants regardless of whether they offer online courses or other options that many others are finding as crucial to securing student enrollments.  For the rest of those in higher education, however, online courses have become another means by which schools can attract students.  When the 2009 installment of the report is issued at the end of this year, I will be interested to see how the trends described above are heading.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence