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California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools

Identifying the Online Student

06/05/2014

Inside Higher Ed. June 3, 2014.

In 2012, most students preferred to do their online study at an institution in their home state. Undergraduate students at historically black colleges and universities were more likely to complete part of their education online than were students in general. West Virginia was the only state where students taking face-to-face courses didn’t make up at least half of the total student body.

These and other data points are now available for analysis from the National Center for Education Statistics, which on Monday released the clearest breakdown of students enrolled in distance education courses in the United States to date.

The statistics themselves are not new, but the findings according to region, sector and state are. The NCES, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, maintains the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, which collects data from the institutions eligible for Title IV financial aid. In 2012, the system for the first time asked colleges and universities about online enrollment, and earlier this year, the center began to tease preliminary data.

Other studies, such as the one released by the Babson Survey Research Group, have attempted to estimate the number of students taking online courses through surveying institutions. This year, the group reported that 7.1 million students took at least one online course in fall 2012, but that number appears to have been on the generous side. According to the IPEDS data, the actual number was about 5.5 million -- roughly one-quarter of the total enrollment.

Among those 5.5 million students, about 2.6 million were enrolled in fully online programs -- the rest took some traditional courses, some online. Those numbers also highlight a split between undergraduates and graduate students. The share of graduate students enrolled in fully online programs was twice as high as the share of undergraduates -- 22 to 11 percent. Undergraduates, however, were almost twice as likely as graduate students to take a combination of face-to-face and online courses -- 14.2 to 7.8 percent.

Where students were located also affected how they obtained their education. Students in New England, for example, were highly likely to enroll only in traditional courses -- 84.5 percent of them did so, according to the data. That share falls as low as 63.4 percent among students in the Southwest.

But even within these regions, student behavior varied from state to state. Only 1.6 percent of students in Rhode Island enrolled in a fully online program -- the lowest in the country -- while 17.6 percent of students in New Hampshire did the same.

Nationwide, though, the number of students enrolled in fully online programs based in their home state edged out those pursuing an education across state lines, 50.7 to 44.6 percent. That split appears to be driven by whether students enrolled at for-profit or nonprofit institutions. Four in every five students at public institutions, or 82.5 percent, studied online in their state of residence, while 84.2 percent of students at for-profit institutions had their courses beamed in from a different state. The gap was narrower among private nonprofits, 39.2 to 54.2 percent. 

Meanwhile, a mere 33,563 students enrolled in a fully online program based outside the U.S.

As expected, for-profit institutions contributed a large share of the students enrolled in fully online programs. The roughly 900,000 students enrolled at private, four-year for-profit institutions made up the single largest category, followed by the about 675,000 taking all their courses online from public two-year institutions.

The federal government is still compiling the 2013 data.