An annual report from the Babson Survey Research Group has shown that while the number of students enrolling in online courses continues to increase, it is growing at the slowest rate in almost a decade.
The report, "Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States," found that almost 5.3 million students enrolled in at least one online course in the fall of 2013, an increase of 3.7% from the previous fall. While enrollment is on the rise in public and private schools, it is seeing a decrease in the for-profit sector.
The study looked at data from a partnership with the College Board as well as 2,800 responses from officials at colleges and universities across the country. For the first time in its twelve years, the report also made use of newly released data that around 5,000 schools reported to the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
According to the authors, reports in the past increased the number of online students because the data being used was not as precise as that given by the government.
The report found 2013 online enrollment to have greatly varied by institution, with private, non-profit four-year institutions seeing the greatest increase in the percentage of students enrolling in online courses, followed by public, four-year institutions. Meanwhile, for-profit four-year schools saw a decrease, with online enrollment dropping by 8.7%, or 66,600 students.
Many experts believe the for-profit institutions saw a drop in enrollment due to criticism of high dropout rates, methods of recruitment, and poor job placement, writes Devon Haynie for US News.
According to co-author Jeff Seaman, who is also co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, there are two schools which account for the majority of the decline in online enrollment. Enrollment at Ashford University is down by 25%, while at the University of Phoenix enrollment has declined by 17%. Government inquiries into school policies have taken place at both institutions.
"There's been an awful lot of bad press about issues related to the some of the larger proprietary schools that may have had a negative halo effect for some of them," Seaman says.
The study also discovered an increase in the percentage of academic leaders who believe online learning to be important for their long-term strategy. The percentage of people to fall into that category reached 70.8% in 2014. Of that group, 74% said online learning was either the same or better than a face-to-face learning atmosphere.
Faculty, however, were not found to hold the same opinion. Only 28% of academic leaders reported that their faculty agreed with the "value and legitimacy of online education."
"Faculty resistance to online is not changing," Seaman says. "It's been steady since we were doing this. We are right where we were in 2003."
The report also found a plateau in the creation of massive online open courses (MOOCs), with only 8% of institutes of higher education currently offering one, and an additional 5.6% reporting such a course being planned for future release.
According to Joel Hartman, an administrator at the University of Central Florida and president of the Online Learning Consortium, this year's results show that online learning is reaching the mainstream.
From 2012 to 2013, he says, "online growth still accounted for three-quarters of all enrollment increases in U.S. higher education. That's not insignificant."