Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2003 and 2004

Abstract: 

The 2004 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the U. S. shows online enrollments continue to grow at rates faster than for the broader student population. Institutes of higher education expect this rate of growth to continue increasing. The second annual survey is based on responses from over 1,100 colleges and universities and represents the state of online education in U.S. higher education. The comprehensive survey by Babson College and Sloan-C concludes that the expected average growth rate for online students for 2004 is 24.8%, up from 19.8% in 2003.

Full Article (PDF): 

Overview

Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2003 and 2004 represents the second annual study of the state of online education in U.S. Higher Education. This year’s study, like last year’s, is aimed at answering some of the fundamental questions about the nature and extent of online education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and based on responses from over 1,100 colleges and universities, this year’s study addresses the following key questions:

Will online enrollments continue their rapid growth?

Background: Last year’s study, Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002 and 2003 found that over 1.6 million students were studying online in the fall of 2002, and that schools expected that number to grow substantially by the fall of 2003. The nearly 20% growth rate expected in online enrollments far exceeds the overall rate of growth for the entire higher education student population. Would this very optimistic projection be realized, or would schools begin to see a plateau in their online enrollments?

The evidence: The online enrollment projections have been realized, and there is no evidence that enrollments have reached a plateau. Online enrollments continue to grow at rates faster than for the overall student body, and schools expect the rate of growth to further increase:

  • Over 1.9 million students were studying online in the fall of 2003.
  • Schools expect the number of online students to grow to over 2.6 million by the fall of 2004.
  • Schools expect online enrollment growth to accelerate — the expected average growth rate for online students for 2004 is 24.8%, up from 19.8% in 2003.
  • Overall, schools were pretty accurate in predicting enrollment growth — last year’s predicted online enrollment for 2003 was 1,920,734; this year’s number from the survey is 1,971,397.

Are students as satisfied with online courses as they are with face-to-face instruction?

Background: Schools face the “if you build it will they come?” question: If they offer online courses and students are not satisfied with them, they will not enroll. Do academic leaders, those responsible for the institutions meeting their enrollment goals, believe that students are as satisfied with their online offerings as with their face-to-face instruction?

The evidence: Schools that offer online courses believe that their online students are at least as satisfied as those taking their face-to-face offerings:

  • 40.7% of schools offering online courses agree that “students are at least as satisfied” with their online courses, 56.2% are neutral and only 3.1% disagree.
  • Medium and large schools strongly agree (with less than 3% disagreeing).
  • The smallest schools (under 1,500 enrollments) are the least positive, but even they have only 5.4% disagreeing compared to 32.9% agreeing.
  • Doctoral/Research, Masters, and Associates schools are very positive, Specialized and Baccalaureate schools only slightly less so.

What role do schools see online learning playing in their long term strategy?

Strategy by control

Background: In order for online learning to enter the mainstream of American higher education, schools must believe in its importance and be willing to embrace it as part of their long-term institutional strategies. Will online learning be seen as a niche among higher education, or will schools see it as an important component of their future evolution?

The evidence: Schools believe that online learning is critical to their long term strategy. We asked if “Online education is critical to the long-term strategy” of the school. Every group with the exception of Baccalaureate schools agrees with this statement. Public and large schools were extremely strong in their opinions (only 3% disagreeing):

  • The majority of all schools (53.6%) agree that online education is critical to their long-term strategy.
  • Among public and private for-profit institutions almost two-thirds (over 65% in both cases) agree.
  • The larger the institution, the more likely it believes that online education is critical.
  • Doctoral/Research, Masters, and Associates schools are very positive, Specialized schools slightly less positive, and Baccalaureate schools slightly negative.

Quality in 3 years

What about the quality of online offerings, do schools continue to believe that it measures up?

Background: One of the earliest perceptions about online learning was that it was of lower quality than face-to-face instruction. The evidence from last year’s study showed academic leaders did not agree with this assessment. When asked to compare learning outcomes in online courses with those for face-to-face instruction, academic leaders put the two on very close terms, and expected the online offerings to continue to get better relative to the face-to-face option. Given the continued growth in the number of students online and the pressure that this growth brings in maintaining quality, do academic leaders still believe in the quality of online offerings?

The evidence: Schools continue to believe that online learning is just as good as being there:

  • A majority of academic leaders believe that online learning quality is already equal to or superior to face-to-face instruction.
  • Three quarters of academic leaders at public colleges and universities believe that online learning quality is equal to or superior to face-to-face instruction.
  • The larger the school, the more positive the view of the relative quality of online learning compared to face-to-face instruction.
  • Three quarters of all academic leaders believe that online learning quality will be equal to or superior to face-to-face instruction in three years.

Press Release

Online Education is Entering the Mainstream

New Study Shows Growth Rate is Accelerating;
Confirms Quality is as Good or Better
U.S. Academic Leaders say Online Education is Critical to Long Term Strategy

(Orlando, FL) The 2004 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the U. S., was released today at the 10th Annual Sloan-C International Conference. The report shows online enrollments continue to grow at rates faster than for the broader student population and institutes of higher education expect the rate of growth to continue increasing. The comprehensive survey by Babson College and Sloan-C concludes that the expected average growth rate for online students for 2004 is 24.8%, up from 19.8% in 2003. “Last year’s online enrollment projection has been realized. There are 2.6 million students learning online this semester and there is no evidence enrollment has reached a plateau,” says Jeff Seaman, Chief Information Officer and Director of Operations, The Sloan Consortium.

Online Enrollment

The second annual survey is based on responses from over 1,100 colleges and universities and represents the state of online education in U.S. Higher Education. “Online learning is indeed entering the mainstream,” says Frank Mayadas, President Sloan-C and Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Last year we found that a majority of academic leaders said online learning was just as good as traditional, face-to-face classroom instruction. This year’s results confirm the finding and show that schools offering online courses believe their online students are at least as satisfied as those actually in the classroom.”

The majority of all schools (53.6%) agree that online education is critical to their long-term strategy. Among public and private for-profit institutions almost two-thirds (over 65%) agree. "At the University of Central Florida, we have found that online education compares favorably with face-to-face instruction," UCF President John Hitt says. "Today's students are comfortable learning and communicating online, and we can increase our enrollment and diversity without burdening our already crowded classroom schedule."

The study was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (http://www.sloan.org/) and conducted by the Sloan Center for OnLine Education at Olin (http://www.olin.edu/) and Babson Colleges (see http://www.babson.edu/) and The Sloan Consortium (see http://www.sloanconsortium.org/).

Contact: Babson College, Director of Public Relations Michael Chmura (781) 239-4549, mchmura@babson.edu or Patti Giglio, PSG Communications, LLC (202) 903-7869, psgcom@starpower.neta>.