Clearing Misconceptions in Distance Ed Enrollments by Sector: IPEDS Reality Check

March 19, 2014

Let’s play a game.  What percentage of all distance education enrollments occur in for-profit institutions?  In private, non-profits?  In public institutions?  Hold onto your guesses as we’ll get to the answers later in this blog post.

The U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS survey gives us an interesting snapshot of distance education adoption patterns by sector in Fall 2012.  In this blog post we break down the numbers by sector (public, non-profit, for-profit) and by level (2-year and 4-year) of institution.

Phil Hill of the e-Literate blog previously posted his insights on sector-specific data, with details on graduate and undergraduate differences. He also did a great job of explaining the methodology used to combine data fields from the IPEDS data so that it can be appropriately compared to the Babson reports. We are very appreciative of this work and did our best to replicate his methodology.

Distance Education:  Not Just for For-Profits Any More (of Course It Never Was)Blackboard with childish scrawl reading 1+1=3
The first major finding is that private for-profit Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) have not taken over the world. We jest, a little.

It is surprising how many times people conflate distance (or online) education with for-profit institutions.  Often these are people who should know better, whether in Congress, the press, research universities, or other higher education pundits.  Certainly, the for-profits have had a huge impact on the distance education world, but maintaining unfounded perceptions does not inform policy or practice.  Some examples:

  • Scene 1:  A fiscal analyst calls Russ Poulin saying that he is glad to see an article in the higher education press about public and non-profit institutions finally starting to get into distance education.  Russ asked him if he knew that the majority of enrollments in distance education were in public and non-profit institutions. The analyst would not believe it at all.  Heavy sigh.
  • Scene 2:  At the opening press conference for one of the big-name MOOC providers, a member of the press asked if the MOOC leaders had sought advice from others already involved in distance education. One of the MOOC leaders responded that they saw no reason to consult with for-profit institutions.  Did we mention this was someone from a research university? First, the leader thought that distance education equated with for-profit institutions.  Second, even if only for-profits were involved, wouldn’t you want to learn from those with experience?  Double sigh.

Courtesy of the IPEDS Fall Enrollment 2012 survey, it is good to have facts to understand better the state of distance education.

For Fully Distance Students, Just Over One-Third Enroll in For-profit Institutions
As seen in Table 1 below, countering the argument that distance education is synonymous with for-profit education, only a third (35%) of fully distance students attended colleges in that sector.  Close to half (47%) of students taking all of their courses at distance did so at public institutions.

Table 1:  Percentage of Students Enrolled in Distance Education by Mode of Delivery

Total Enrollments

Sector Enrollment as % of Total Enrollments

Students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses (percentage of all students taking all DE courses)

Students enrolled in some but not all distance education courses (percentage of all students taking some DE courses)

Public

15,085,798

71.4%

1,251,398

47.2%

2,409,595

84.8%

Private, Non-Profit

4,118,688

19.5%

473,941

17.9%

291,144

10.2%

Private, For-Profit

1,932,857

9.1%

928,087

35.0%

141,870

5.0%

Totals

21,137,343

 

 

2,653,426

2,842,609

Mixing Distance and Traditional Courses Much More Popular at Public Colleges
In reviewing the numbers for students who took both distance and face-to-face courses, the differences are quite remarkable.  Public institutions had more than two million students who participated in both modes of delivery.  Five-of-six (85%) of all students who enrolled in some (but not all) distance courses attended public institutions. Ten percent of private institution students and 5% of for-profit students took both face-to-face and distance courses.

 

Fully Distance Students are Nearly Half of For-Profit Enrollments; Around 10% for Other Sectors
There are large differences in fully online adoption within each sector. Most striking is the fact that 48% (see Table 2 below) of all student enrollments in for-profit institutions were enrolled exclusively in Distance Education (DE) courses.

Table 2:  Percentage of Students Enrolled in Distance Education Within Each Sector

Total Enrollments

Sector Enrollment as % of Total Enrollments

Students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses (percentage of students in their college’s sector)

Students enrolled in some but not all distance education courses
(percentage of students in their college’s sector)

Public

15,085,798

71.4%

1,251,398

8.3%

2,409,595

16.0%

Private, Non-Profit

4,118,688

19.5%

473,941

11.5%

291,144

7.1%

Private, For-Profit

1,932,857

9.1%

928,087

48.0%

141,870

7.3%

Totals

21,137,343

 

 

2,653,426

12.6%

2,842,609

13.4%

Public institutions are still responsible for the lion’s share of overall higher education enrollments with 71% of all students in Fall 2012.  Only 8% of their enrollments were exclusively in DE courses. While private, non-profits represent twice as many student enrollments as their for-profit counterparts, only 11.5% of their students are in fully DE courses. Overall, 13% of student enrollment in the Fall of 2012 were in exclusively DE courses.

One-in-Six Public Students Mix DE and Traditional Courses; Fewer in Other Sectors
The table also shows adoption of DE courses by sector for students who are taking some, but not all of their courses at a distance. Overall 13% of students took a mixture of face-to-face and distance courses. Again there are great difference among sectors: Public institutions lead with 16% and private for-profit and non-profit reporting 7% each.

Overall, a Quarter of All Students Took at Least One Distance Course
These numbers hint at the growth in DE offerings in all sectors since the advent of online course offerings nearly 20 years ago. While we do not have data to show how this proportion has grown to date, we will be able to track these adoption trends going forward.  As reported in the first blog in the series U.S. Distance Education Adoption by the Numbers: an IPEDS Reality Check, when combining the counts of students who took all their courses at a distance and those who enrolled in some distance courses, one-in-four (26%) are engaged in DE courses.

Two-thirds of Students Enrolled in At Least One Distance Course Are at a Public Institution
Given the large number of public institutions, it is not surprising that the bulk of students taking at least one online course are enrolled in that sector. For-profit colleges account for only one-in-five students taking at least one distance course.  For non-profits and for-profits, the majority of their distance students are enrolled fully online, while public students tend to mix their enrollments with traditional courses.

Table 3: Enrollment in At Least One Distance Course  by Sector

Students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses

Students enrolled in some but not all distance education courses

Students enrolled in at least one distance education course (sum of prior two columns)

Percentage of all students enrolled in at least one distance education course

Public

1,251,398

2,409,595

3,660,993

66.6%

Private, Non-Profit

473,941

291,144

765,085

13.9%

Private, For-Profit

928,087

141,870

1,069,957

19.5%

Totals

2,653,426

2,842,609

5,496,035

 

 

Subdividing the Sectors by Degree Level
Deeper analysis of the sectors, looking more closely at the data for 2-year and 4-year institutions reveals clearly that adoption in exclusively DE courses is highest, by far, among private, for-profit 4-year institutions at 61%, while their for-profit counterparts at the 2-year level report just 4.9% of enrollments in exclusively DE courses. Public institutions at the 4-year and above level report 7% exclusively online enrollments, public 2-year schools at 10% and public, less than 2-year institutions report only 0.5% fully online.

Table 4:  Percentage of Students Enrolled in Distance Education by Sub-sector

Students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses

Students enrolled in some but not all distance education courses

Public, 4-year or above

576,615

7.1%

1,225,364

15.0%

Private, Non-Profit, 4-year and above

473,133

11.6%

288,904

7.1%

Private, For-Profit, 4-year and above

906,376

61.0%

122,083

8.2%

Public, 2-year

674,491

9.8%

1,183,566

17.3%

Private, non-profit, 2-year

808

1.7%

2,240

4.6%

Private, for-profit, 2-year

21,711

4.9%

19,787

4.4%

Public, less-than 2-year

292

0.5%

665

1.1%

 Totals

2,653,426

12.6%

2,842,609

13.4%

In Looking at Sectors:  Where Are the Students?
Of interest is determining where the students being served by these IHEs call home. Predictably, a large proportion of students served by public institutions are within the borders of the college’s state.  This is true even for those enrolled exclusively in DE courses: 91% for public, 2-year IHEs and 39% for public, 4-year colleges. While the number of public, less than 2-year colleges is small, 100% of their exclusively DE students are in the same state as the schools serving them.

Private, for-profit institutions have a much broader reach with the exclusively DE programs. Private, for-profit 4-year IHEs report 84% of their exclusively DE enrollments are from out-of-state and for-profit 2-year schools are close behind at 73%. Private, non-profits also report significantly higher proportion of out-of-state exclusively online enrollments at 54% for 4-year or above and 39% for 2-year schools.

Table 5:  Out-of-State Distance Education Enrollments by Sub-sector

 

 

 

Students Enrolled Exclusively in Distance Education Courses

 

 Sector

# IHEs in Sector

 Number of
enrollments exclusively in DE courses

% of Total enrollment

 % enrolled in same state as IHE

 % enrolled not in same state as IHE

% enrolled located outside U.S.

% enrolled in U.S., state unknown

% enrolled student location unknown/ not reported

Total Enrollment—by Sector
Public, 4-year or above

711

576,615

7.1%

73%

20%

2%

1%

4%

8,165,119

Private, Non-Profit, 4-year and above

1,662

473,133

11.6%

39%

54%

2%

2%

3%

4,069,937

Private, For-Profit, 4-year and above

798

906,376

61.0%

13%

84%

1%

1%

1%

1,485,692

Public, 2-year

1,061

674,491

9.8%

91%

5%

1%

2%

1%

6,858,541

Private, non-profit, 2-year

192

808

1.7%

61%

39%

0%

0%

0%

48,751

Private, for-profit, 2-year

1,078

21,711

4.9%

26%

73%

0%

0%

0%

447,165

Public, less-than 2-year

268

292

0.5%

100%

0%

0%

0%

0%

62,138

Totals

5,770

2,653,426

12.6%

50.6%

44.6%

1.3%

1.4%

2.1%

21,137,343

As noted in the blog post, Where in the World Are Our Distance Education Students?: IPEDS Reality Check, many institutions report serving students who reside outside of the U.S. In this data, both public 4-year and private 4-year schools each report that 2% of their exclusively DE students are residing outside the U.S. IPEDS did not capture the exact location of these learners. These students may be military stationed elsewhere, U.S. nationals located in other countries, or foreign nationals. While the percentage is small, students located in other countries represent potential issues including language, culture, and providing support services. There are also policy implications related to serving international students.

Enrollments reported as fully DE where the state where the student is located is unknown or not reported are relatively small. Though the fact that some institutions simply did not report the student location suggests potential issues with state authorization compliance.

While evaluating this data, we need to continue to remember that all of this segmentation is reported for just the 13% of student enrollments reported as exclusively DE in Fall 2012 IPEDS data. It is a starting place, reveals interesting differences between the sectors, and allows us to benchmark the current state. As new data is reported by IPEDS, we will be able to track the changes in fully online adoption as the market continues to develop and mature.

Methodology and Definitions
For this analysis, we used the United States Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Enrollment survey which includes counts of students taking Distance Education courses in Fall 2012. To identify the IHEs, we used the seven sector data fields, which resulted in 5,770 institutions of higher education in the U.S. This is a larger data set than used in previous blog posts and this data set does not match the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG)/Sloan-C/Pearson survey, which is based on 4,726 institutions. Total students enrollments were reported as 21,137,343 in this study. We also modeled the methodology used by Phil Hill in his e-Literate blogs on IPED data by combining the data fields, “enrolled exclusively in DE courses” and “enrolled in some but not all DE courses” to match the Babson category “enrolled in at least one online course”.

Recent WCET Frontiers IPEDS blog posts use the degree-granting institution field that represent 4,726 institutions. As in prior blogs about the IPEDS DE data, we will use the term distance education and abbreviate it DE, as IPEDS does. The term online courses may be more descriptive and the terms are often used interchangeably, but to be consistent with how the data was collected and reported, we use Distance Education. It is important to remember that this reporting represents a combination of graduate and undergraduate DE courses, which may obscure much stronger adoption of fully online graduate programs.

Final Comments
How did you fare in guessing the percentages in each sector?

Even before publishing this piece, we can anticipate that some readers will be upset that we are promoting, condemning, or ignoring one or more higher education sectors.  That was not our intent.   Our plan is to promote discussion, analysis, and policy-making based on the best data available.

On that last issue (“best data available”), we have been contacted with questions about the IPEDS definitions and data.  We are researching them and some of these questions could have serious implications.  In an upcoming blog post, we may address some of those questions or raise more questions.Photo of Terri Straut

Terri Straut
Ascension Consulting
terri_straut@msn.com

Russ Poulin
Interim Co-Executive Director
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
rpoulin@wiche.eduPhoto of Russ Poulin with baseball bat

Photo Credit:  Morgue File.

If you like our work, join WCET!

4 Comments

  1. David Lassner
    Posted March 23, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Russ — Thanks for reparsing this data to answer more important questions!
    david

  2. Posted March 19, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for this follow-on discussion.

    There were a few that struck me as I read both your work and Phil’s.

    Unknown Experience: First, it has been really frustrating to me that many educators seem to forget that some of us (public 2-year colleges in particular) have been involved in offering online courses for many years. When UC started thinking about doing online work about four years ago, they wanted to investigate the efficacy first. I wanted them to at least ask us. Our experience could be informing a number of institutions who don’t realize what we know. We’d be happy to help.

    When I participated in the 20-Million Minds Evolve panel discussion with students a couple of months ago, I asked students how important good course design was to them in online classes. They were very clear that good design and experienced (well trained) online instructors made a huge difference. (The link to that conversation is at the end of this post.) Those of us who live or die by success rates in the public sector have refined effective design and professional development into an art. We have a lot we could be sharing with our higher-than-us institutions.

    Why our students are local: When you look at where the online students come from, it’s no surprise to see that in the public setting, they are local. In the launch of e-literate TV, Michael Feldstein asks the question about our needs and goals for offering online programs and he isn’t the only one asking. Our accrediting agency requires us to state the “reason” we offer online classes when we write our reports. That reason most often is to provide more access to courses that are full on-ground or to accommodate student completion schedules. Justifying online offerings for other reasons becomes a sticky issue to publicly funded institutions.

    Why we don’t do exclusive: It’s also rare to find courses that are offered exclusively online in the public setting. We also have mandates to provide equal access for all cases and some students are not able to take online classes for a variety of reasons of their own.
    Again, I thank you and Phil HIll for bringing this data and the analysis to light.

    Patricia James

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHw713fpfPw#t=7264 the design conversation is about 2 hours into the video.

    http://e-literate.tv/s1-e2/ The e-literate TV post with Michael’s question, “Online Learning, what’s it good for?”

  3. Posted March 19, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on The Artful Car Dodger.

  4. Posted March 19, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink | Reply

    Great article, Russ. Thought this notion of the for-profits being the only providers was long gone, but it obviously is not. All those bogus portals out there that advertise only certain paid advertisers and mislead the public into thinking they are the only and best options available to them still need to be exposed for what they really are, publishers of misinformation. Unfortunately it has been going on for more than a decade at least. I wrote about it back in 2003. The schools that support these purveyors of misinformation should also take a hard look into this and make a decision to be more ethical with their promotional efforts

9 Trackbacks

  1. […] these anomalies were significant.  From the enrollments numbers that were reported to IPEDS, about one-in-eight students take all of their courses at a distance and about one-in-four take at least some distance courses.  […]

  2. […] the total number of “students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses” for Fall 2012 was 2,653,426, an undercount of a hundred thousand students just from these two systems would be a 4% error. That […]

  3. […] the total number of “students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses” for Fall 2012 was 2,653,426, an undercount of a hundred thousand students just from these two systems would be a 4% error.  […]

  4. […] equals “for-profit education.” The new IPEDS data show (see Table 1 below from a WCET post by Russ) that 35% of students enrolled exclusively at a distance attend for-profit institutions and only 5% […]

  5. […] education” equals “for-profit education.” The new IPEDS data show (see Table 1 below from a WCET post by Russ) that 35% of students enrolled exclusively at a distance attend for-profit institutions and only 5% […]

  6. By Link Log (2014-03-26) - Ruminate on March 26, 2014 at 11:12 am

    […] Clearing Misconceptions in Distance Ed Enrollments by Sector: IPEDS Reality Check. The headline won’t win a Peabody, but important, hard data for those of us talking about elearning and distance education. Funny thing: in my experience, faculty in public and non-profit institutions tend to think that public/non-profit elearning and distance ed is taking over. Apparently the public thinks the for-profit sector has already done so. The gallows humor part is that those of us who work in distance ed within public and non-profit institutions are usually trying to keep the latter from actually happening. But we’re still routinely seen as the enemy. […]

  7. By Link Log (2014-03-26) - Ruminate on March 26, 2014 at 11:00 am

    […] Clearing Misconceptions in Distance Ed Enrollments by Sector: IPEDS Reality Check. The headline won’t win a Peabody, but important, hard data for those of us talking about elearning and distance education. Funny thing: in my experience, faculty in public and non-profit institutions tend to think that public/non-profit elearning and distance ed is taking over. Apparently the public thinks the for-profit sector has already done so. The gallows humor part is that those of us who work in distance ed within public and non-profit institutions are usually trying to keep the latter from actually happening. But still we’re most often cast as the enemy. […]

  8. […] analysis of distance learning based on the new IPEDS data. They have several posts up already, and today’s post is quite good and important. If only more people jumping into the fray on higher education history […]

  9. […] See on wcetblog.wordpress.com […]

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