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More Than One in Four College Students Take Courses Online

Jan 28, 2010

In 2009, the Sloan Consortium found that more than one in four college students were taking at least one course online. A year later, the survey reflects unprecedented growth in online education with nearly one million new students enrolled in Internet courses.

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Big Growth in Online Learning

The Sloan Consortium recently released findings from their 8th annual survey of online learning. The report, Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010, draws on enrollment data from fall 2009, which is the most recent term for which reliable information is available.

The previous year's report found that over one in four college students were taking at least one course online, which represented a 17% increase over the 2008 survey. But this year's report comes with even bigger news: Online enrollment rose by almost one million students, an unprecedented figure. That means that nearly 30% of American college students are taking at least one course online.

But study co-author Elaine Allen cautions that we can't necessarily expect to continue to see this level of growth. Much of the increase in online enrollments is due to for-profit institutions, two-thirds of which report that online learning is 'critical' for their long term visions. However, many of these institutions worry that new federal regulations on student recruiting and financial aid for the for-profit sector could have a negative impact on enrollment. Furthermore, budget pressures on large public institutions may slow the growth in the availability of online classes in not-for-profit institutions.

While effects from the economic downturn may result in slowing online enrollment in the long term, it has contributed to the increase in the last couple of years. As previous studies have shown, the recession sent many jobless individuals back to school, and that pattern seems to be continuing. Nearly half of the institutions in the current survey reports an increase in demand for face-to-face courses and degree programs due to the economic downturn.

And that number is even higher for online learning, which often costs less for students and is more accessible to students living in remote areas. Three-quarters of the colleges and universities in the 2010 Sloan survey report that the economic downturn led to an increase in demand for online courses and programs.

Trends in Online Enrollment

Year Total Enrollment Students Taking at Least One Online Course % of Students in an Online Course
Fall 2002 16,611,710 1,602,970 9.6%
Fall 2003 16,911,481 1,971,397 11.7%
Fall 2004 17,272,043 2,329,783 13.5%
Fall 2005 17,487,481 3,180,050 18.2%
Fall 2006 17,758,872 3,488,381 19.6%
Fall 2007 17,975,830 3,938,111 21.6%
Fall 2008 18,199,920 4,606,353 24.6%
Fall 2009 19,036,860 5,579,022 29.3%

Source: Sloan Consortium, 'Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010, page 8

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