Pandemic fueled huge online-only enrollment growth, report finds

Dive Brief: 

Student enrollment in exclusively distance education saw a significant increase in 2020 due to institutions offering courses virtually that would have normally been offered on-campus, new data suggests. 

That’s according to an annual report from the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, or NC-SARA, a distance education oversight organization that covers all states except California and also covers the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Around 5.8 million college students were enrolled in exclusively distance education in SARA-participating institutions in fall 2020, nearly double the number of students whose courses were entirely remote the previous year. NC-SARA collected data from 2,201 institutions. 

Dive Insight: 

NC-SARA’s annual reports provide a snapshot of online learning trends, including how many online students are enrolled in institutions across state lines. 

This year’s version found the coronavirus pandemic fueled growth in the number of students enrolled in exclusively distance education, or EDE. It also suggested that the health crisis disrupted some long-running trends in online learning. 

In 2019, for instance, the share of students enrolled in EDE was roughly split between those attending colleges in their home state and attending out-of-state schools, 53.7% versus 46.3%, respectively. But in 2020, the share of EDE students enrolled in their home states rose to 67.6%, according to the new report. 

“The significant growth, both in the sheer EDE enrollment reported and the proportion of reported enrollment, is likely attributable to the pivot to emergency remote learning by many institutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said. NC-SARA also added 113 participating institutions, which may have contributed to overall EDE enrollment increases. 

However, some of these trends are likely to persist beyond the pandemic. Nearly six in 10 surveyed institutions said they would continue some or all emergency remote learning offerings via distance education after the health crisis ends, according to a survey of SARA-participating colleges. 

Public institutions accounted for 85.3% of in-state EDE enrollment in 2020, up from 78.7% in 2019. The increase may be due to in-state students who had planned on attending their schools in person being switched to emergency all-remote learning during the pandemic, the report stated.

Private nonprofit colleges continued to dominate out-of-state EDE enrollment. They accounted for 44.5% of such enrollment in 2020, with for-profits and public colleges accounting for 28.4% and 27.2%, respectively. The shares were largely level with the prior year’s figures, changing at most by only a few percentage points. 

NC-SARA also annually lists the 15 institutions with the largest EDE enrollment. Western Governors University, which reported more than 147,000 exclusively online students, topped the list in 2020. The top five was rounded out by Southern New Hampshire University, the University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University and Liberty University. 

While 2020’s top 15 list was similar to the prior year’s version, three institutions made their debut. Those were the University of Central Florida, Florida International University and Dallas College — all public institutions. 

NC-SARA’s data bolsters recent findings from federal enrollment data. In 2020, 44.7% of students were enrolled entirely online, compared to 17% in 2019, Inside Higher Ed reported. Moreover, 28% of students were enrolled in some but not all online courses in 2020, up from 19% who were the previous year.

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