Who’s Up and Who’s Down in Online Education?

May 02, 2017

While overall enrollment in higher education has fallen in the past three years, the number of students taking classes at a distance has continued to grow, a new report shows. In 2015, more than six million students — nearly 30 percent of college students — took at least one course online. Nearly half of those students took courses exclusively online.

The report, Digital Learning Compass: Digital Education Enrollment Report 2017, also documents the shifting patterns of online enrollment — away from for-profit colleges and toward private nonprofit institutions.

Online enrollments at private, nonprofit institutions are growing at the fastest rate, and these institutions now enroll more distance students than do the for-profits, the report shows. The for-profit declines have come overwhelmingly at the undergraduate level; the private nonprofits have seen growth among both undergraduate and graduate students.

Online enrollment remains very concentrated: Just 5 percent of institutions account for nearly half of all distance-education students. The 50 institutions with the most online students in 2015 enrolled more than 1.4 million students, nearly one-quarter of the those taking at least one distance-education course.

To show the changes taking place in the online-education landscape, the report also ranks the 50 colleges with the biggest enrollments in 2012 and the 50 biggest in 2015. Forty-six out of 50 changed rankings over those three years, noted Jeff Seaman, co-director of Babson Survey Research Group, which conducted the survey with the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies and the ed-tech blog e-Literate. "It’s not yet reached the steady state in terms of who the big players are," said Mr. Seaman in an interview.

Seventeen of the colleges with the largest enrollments in 2012 were replaced by faster-growing institutions in the 2015 list. Several others on the 2012 list were among the fastest growers in 2015, led by Southern New Hampshire University, which grew by nearly 400 percent. Four other institutions had online enrollments increase by more than 10,000 students: Western Governors University, Brigham Young University-Idaho, the University of Central Florida, and Grand Canyon University.

Following is a table showing the change in online enrollments (defined as students taking at least one distance-education class) from 2012 to 2015 for the 50 institutions that had the most online enrollments in 2012.

How 2012's Online-Education Leaders Fared 3 Years Later

InstitutionState2012 distance enrollment2015 distance enrollmentChange from 2012 to 2015Classification
Southern New Hampshire University NH 11,286 56,371 45,085 Private nonprofit
Western Governors University UT 41,369 70,504 29,135 Private nonprofit
Brigham Young University at Idaho ID 11,763 33,551 21,788 Private nonprofit
University of Central Florida FL 21,782 33,034 11,252 Public
Grand Canyon University AZ 44,006 54,543 10,537 Private for-profit
University of Maryland University College MD 42,165 48,677 6,512 Public
University of Florida FL 23,180 28,838 5,658 Public
University of South Florida-Main Campus FL 16,241 20,993 4,752 Public
Excelsior College NY 39,728 43,123 3,395 Private nonprofit
Valencia College FL 13,985 17,216 3,231 Public
Lone Star College System TX 18,602 21,811 3,209 Public
Walden University MN 50,209 52,799 2,590 Private for-profit
Liberty University VA 69,935 72,519 2,584 Private nonprofit
College of Southern Nevada NV 13,270 14,906 1,636 Public
Houston Community College TX 17,524 19,111 1,587 Public
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide FL 11,368 12,857 1,489 Private nonprofit
Florida International University FL 25,028 26,341 1,313 Public
Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus PA 13,238 14,355 1,117 Public
Columbia Southern University AL 19,933 20,823 890 Private for-profit
Columbus State Community College OH 11,558 11,907 349 Public
Colorado Technical University-Online CO 22,608 22,757 149 Private for-profit
Cuyahoga Community College District OH 12,418 12,266 -152 Public
St. Petersburg College FL 16,669 16,501 -168 Public
National University CA 12,775 12,116 -659 Private nonprofit
Northern Arizona University AZ 12,544 11,769 -775 Public
Portland Community College OR 11,822 10,849 -973 Public
Kaplan University-Davenport Campus IA 46,374 45,268 -1,106 Private for-profit
DeVry University-Illinois IL 21,616 20,458 -1,158 Private for-profit
Capella University MN 35,754 34,365 -1,389 Private for-profit
South University Savannah Online GA 12,364 10,781 -1,583 Private for-profit
Columbia College MO 11,718 9,870 -1,848 Private nonprofit
Tarrant County College District TX 12,290 10,377 -1,913 Public
American InterContinental University-Online IL 14,170 11,560 -2,610 Private for-profit
Nova Southeastern University FL 14,983 12,147 -2,836 Private nonprofit
Tidewater Community College VA 13,164 9,989 -3,175 Public
Wake Technical Community College NC 11,853 8,642 -3,211 Public
Full Sail University FL 23,486 19,939 -3,547 Private for-profit
Rio Salado College AZ 16,902 12,092 -4,810 Public
Middle Tennessee State University TN 11,416 6,088 -5,328 Public
Northern Virginia Community College VA 19,152 13,421 -5,731 Public
American Public University System WV 58,115 52,361 -5,754 Private for-profit
Troy University AL 15,444 8,824 -6,620 Public
Thomas Edison State University NJ 20,456 13,093 -7,363 Public
Ivy Tech Community College IN 42,821 34,103 -8,718 Public
Arizona State University at Tempe AZ 36,095 22,809 -13,286 Public
CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College NY 16,546 1,465 -15,081 Public
Pima Community College AZ 27,677 7,425 -20,252 Public
Everest University-South Orlando FL 33,239 8,851 -24,388 Private nonprofit
Ashford University CA 76,722 42,046 -34,676 Private for-profit
University of Phoenix AZ 256,346 162,003 -94,343 Private for-profit

Note: This list includes only the 50 institutions with the most online students in 2012. For the list of institutions with the most online students as of 2015, view the full report. When reading year-to-year comparisons, be aware that colleges that attributed online enrollments to a particular campus may have shifted those students to another campus between 2012 and 2015.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at