Why Online Education Will Attain Full Scale, Pt. 1: A Bump in the Road

In the December 2010 issue, my article on "Why Online Education Will Attain Full Scale" was published in JALN (Vol. 14, #4).  The article's main idea is that we will see full scale adoption of online learning in higher education within the next five to ten years (also see the abstract below).  I'd like to start a series of blog postings which explore this idea in more detail and follow the progress of this development as it happens.

In this first posting, let's talk about a bump in the road:  the precipitous drop in enrollments at for-profit colleges over the last quarter of 2010.  University of Phoenix's enrollments dropped 42%; Strayer University's dropped 22%, and the stock prices of the parent companies of for-profit higher ed institutions have taken a big hit as well.  At first glance, this looks like a confirmation of "clouds on the horizon" which are addressed in the JALN paper.  The reality is a bit more muddled at closer glance, however, for several reasons:

1) The info is hard to find, so it's hard to know whether online enrollments dropped proportionally, or less, or more.

2) The figures I've seen indicate that for-profit IHEs still account for a relatively small percentage of total IHE online enrollments -- ~25% or so.  So while a drop in their enrollments is a factor, it is not necessarily a defining one.

3) As the JALN article explains, growth rates don't have to continue at historical rates (~20% since 2002) in order to reach full scale (as defined by a majority of college students taking at least one online course during the academic year).  Even if the rates drop by half (to 10%), the 50% figure will be reached in about seven years.

4)  How is that possible?  Mainly because of arithmetic. Based on Sloan-C Survey figures (p.8), in 2002, a 10% increase in online enrollments would have yielded an increase of ~160,000 students (from a 1.6M student base). In 2009, a 10% increase will yield an increase of ~560,000 students (from a 5.6M student base) -- in other words, a numerical increase which is 3.5x the size of the increase in 2002.  Because the total higher education population is increasing so slowly in comparison (<2%/yr), the 'market share' of online enrollments will continue to rise rapidly.

Likewise, another 20% increase (historical average) would yield an increase of 1.12M students, which would be 3x the increase of 370,000 students recorded between 2002 and 2003 (a 23% increase).  More importantly, it would be a numerical increase of 750,000 students, which would cause the 'market share' to rise even more rapidly.

The enrollment difficulties which for-profit IHEs may presage a slowdown in the growth rate -- or it may not:  as one distance education director told me recently, his institution is starting to see more inquiries from students who previously would have considered a for-profit school instead.  But even if there is a slowdown in for-profit online enrollments, that is still just a bump in the road at most.  In fact, a slower growth rate may well be likely.  But a slower growth rate does not necessarily mean a decrease in numerical gains, and that is the more important figure...

 

Abstract:

Online higher education has attained scale and is poised to take the next step in its growth. Although significant obstacles to a full scale adoption of online education remain, we will see full scale adoption of online higher education within the next five to ten years. Practically all higher education students will experience online education in some form during their collegiate career, and college students will be able to take online or blended degree programs and certificates in almost any subject. Full scale online education will occur as the result of compounded growth, increased familiarity and acceptance, various models of scalability, and possible wildcards which may accelerate growth. Online education will also attain full scale by becoming fully integrated into mainstream education. This transformation is necessary for online learning to reach its potential to improve the quality of education.

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