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Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017: New Report Finds Changes in For-Profit Participation

Curriculum Planning and Development

Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017: New Report Finds Changes in For-Profit Participation

Distance Education Enrollment

A new report by the Babson Survey Research Group, led by researchers I. Elaine Allen, PhD, and Jeff Seaman, PhD, finds changes in the number and governance structure of institutions offering distance education programs. The results have implications for our understanding of the major players in distance education and their impact on higher education.

Overall, higher education is experiencing a decrease in enrollment. Between 2012 and 2015, overall enrollment at all levels of higher education decreased 3.2 percent, a change in direction from trends for the previous decade. Between 2002 and 2012, institutions “averaged a 2.7 percent compound annual growth rate for overall enrollments,” the report says. The decline, however, was unevenly distributed across institution types. Graduate schools saw a modest 1.1 percent growth, while undergraduate four-year schools showed nearly no change in enrollment. Undergraduate two-year schools, however, saw a fairly dramatic 9.5 percent decline over the same period.

At the same time, the percentage of students taking at least one distance education course has increased. The proportion studying partially or entirely through distance courses grew from 25.9 percent in 2012 to 29.7 percent in 2015. “To put these figures in context, the proportion of students taking at least one online course for fall 2002 was under ten percent, at 9.6 percent,” the authors write.

Most interesting, however, is the degree to which public institutions have dominated the distance education market. Over two-thirds (67.8 percent) of students taking at least one distance education course in 2015 did so at a public institution, compared with 17.8 percent who studied at a private, nonprofit institution and 14.5 percent who studied at a for-profit institution. This turns the stereotype about for-profit dominance in distance education on its head, and it is a trend worth examining.

Changes in for-profit participation in distance education

Interestingly, public institutions have shown steady growth in distance education enrollment, exhibiting an increase in each yearly period between 2012 and 2015. In contrast, private for-profit institutions have seen a decrease in each yearly period. The net effect is a shifting of distance education enrollment away from for-profit institutions and toward public and private nonprofit institutions. Overall, the report finds that “the non-profit sector experienced tremendous growth” of 40 percent between 2012 and 2015, while “the for-profit sector experienced a significant decrease” of 18 percent during the same period.

However, the changes were not uniform across the sectors. This is largely a result of the concentration of distance education students in a small number of institutions. The report further explains, “Almost half of distance education students are concentrated in just 5 percent of institutions: the 235 institutions that represent only 5.0 percent of the higher education universe command 47.7 percent of the student distance enrollments. The top 47 institutions represent only 1.0 percent of all institutions, yet they enroll 23.0 percent of all distance enrollments. A mere nine institutions account for over 10 percent of all distance education enrollments, representing only 0.19 percent of higher education institutions.”

This concentration has important implications for academic leadership. The report explains:

An important implication of this high degree of distance enrollment concentration is that decisions of a relatively small number of academic leaders will have a very large impact on the overall distance education universe. For example, the opinions of key leaders among the top 471 institutes (the top 10 percent) on how they market and evolve their distance programs will impact nearly two-thirds of all distance students. From the student perspective, the concentration of large numbers of students in a small number of schools means that most distance students are enrolled in institutions with large numbers of fellow distance classmates.

Understanding the players

To gain a better understanding of the key players in distance education, the report looked at the top 50 distance education institutions. The research found some significant changes in the leading providers between 2012 and 2015, including the following:

  • “The level of concentration of distance education enrollments was slightly reduced between 2012 and 2015. In 2012, the top 50 [institutions] represented 26.8 percent of all distance enrollments. In 2015, the total of 1,422,136 distance students accounted for by the top 50 represented only 23.6 percent.”
  • “The number of public institutions on the top 50 list increased from 27 in 2012 to 30 in 2015, and the proportion of their students studying at a distance remained the lowest of the three sectors (46.2 percent in both 2012 and 2015).”
  • “The number of private for-profit institutions on the list decreased by one from 13 to 12 and the proportion of distance students [enrolled] remained very high, dropping from 98.4 percent in 2012 to 96.1 percent in 2015.”

 Download the new report, “Digital Learning Compass: Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017,” at http://digitallearningcompass.org/. The report is summarized here with permission.


Copyright © 2017 by Babson Survey Research Group, e-Literate, and WCET. Graphic reprinted by permission of author Jeff Seaman, PhD. Contact the authors bsrg@babson.edu.


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