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US: Distance learning enrolments up despite for-profit drop

More than one in four students in the US was enrolled on at least one distance learning course in 2014, new research by the Babson Survey Research Group has shown. This marks a 13th consecutive year of enrolment growth, but the research also shows that bucking the trend, the for-profit sector has seen enrolments fall.

The report also showed the geographical distribution of students. Image: StudyPortals.

The for-profit private sector saw a 10% drop in student enrolments to 961,173

The not-for-profit private sector experienced “tremendous growth” in the number of students enrolled on distance learning courses – those that do not require students to come onto campus to learn – between 2012 and 2014, up 26% to 960,751 students, contrasting starkly with a 10% drop to 961,173 students on these courses run by for-profit companies over the same period.

“There’s something real going on here, we’ve not reached a plateau, and the demand continues to exist out there for these types of programmes”

These changing enrolments have seen the gap in the number of students in the for-profit and non-profit sectors close from more than a quarter of a million enrolments in 2012 to just 422 in 2014, which the report labels an “extraordinary outcome”.

Meanwhile, public institutions, which account for the largest portion of distance education students, saw enrolments climb 9% to 3,906,902 in the same two years. Around three-quarters of undergraduate and just over a third of postgraduate distance learners study at these institutions.

The “resilience of the distance learning field” is notable, particularly given both the decline in the for-profit sector – until recently the “engine of growth” and the drop in higher education enrolments in the US overall, commented Jeff Seaman, co-director of the group and one of the authors of the report.

He noted that enrolment numbers have continued to climb every year since the group began publishing annual reports on distance learning 13 years ago.

“That to me says there’s something real going on here, we’ve not reached a plateau, and the demand continues to exust out there for these types of programmes,” he told The PIE News.

Despite the growth in distance learning programmes, the study showed that there is still widespread resistance to them from faculty.

Only 29.1% of chief academic officers surveyed for the report said they believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education.

This is consistent with the findings of the previous 12 reports, none of which saw faculty acceptance of online learning reach more than a third.

“There are some things that just don’t change, and the widespread faculty acceptance of this is still one of those things which is still an issue,” Seaman commented.

“There are some things that just don’t change, and the widespread faculty acceptance of this is still one of those things”

However, he noted that this resistance does not appear to have hindered growth in enrolments: “Even with all the negative views from the faculty, institutions have had no problem growing these programmes.”

This year’s report also reveals a dramatic drop in the number of smaller institutions that are interested in offering online courses.

It found that the proportion of chief academic leaders in the US that say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy fell from 71% in 2013 to 63% in 2014.

However, the report notes that when it comes to discussions about the strategic importance of online learning, “virtually all the change is occurring among the very smallest institutions” that do not already offer online or distance learning.

The proportion of smaller institutions reporting that online education was a critical part of their long-term strategy fell by a third from 70% to just 46% between 2014 and 2015, it said.

“Those institutions with online offerings are just as positive about it as ever, but those who have no offerings are no longer saying that it will be part of their future plans,” it adds.

However, although smaller institutions make up more than half of all higher education institutions in the US, they only account for 6% of enrolments.

Because of this, the study concludes that: “If all of these institutions changed their mind tomorrow and began an aggressive push to add online courses, the total number of distance students would change by only about one percentage point.”

The research was delivered in partnership with the Online Learning Consortium, Pearson, StudyPortals, Tyton Partners and WCET.

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