Colleges See 17 Percent Increase in Online Enrollment

Colleges saw a 17 percent increase in online enrollment, with more than one in four students taking at least one online course in the fall of 2008, according to the findings of an annual survey published on Tuesday by the Sloan Consortium.

The growth rate eclipsed last year’s 12-percent increase and dwarfed the 1.2 percent growth rate of the overall higher-education student population. The report, which has become a widely cited benchmark of distance learning, found a total of more than 4.6-million online students overall. That’s up from about 3.9 million the previous year.

Despite this surge, the data suggest that not enough institutions have taken online education into account as they conduct planning around issues like how to deal with budget cuts and space shortages, says A. Frank Mayadas, a special adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

“They have to wake up and begin to think about this as a strategic item,” Mr. Mayadas says.

The report found that public institutions are by far the most likely to believe that online education is key to their long-term strategy. That reflects the striking demand for online couses at institutions like the University of Central Florida, where more than half of the 53,500 students take at least one online course each year.

The university’s online efforts stem from its mission of providing access and its budget realities. All new construction money is “basically frozen at the state level,” says Tom Cavanagh, assistant vice president for distributed learning.

“For us to grow, it’s going to be online until that money is freed up again,” he says.

The Sloan report is based on data collected from more than 2,500 colleges and universities by the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board. Among the study’s other key findings:

* Bad economic times, which traditionally drive more people back to school, are having a particularly strong impact on demand for online courses. Seventy-three percent of institutions report increased demand for existing online courses, compared with 54 percent for face-to-face. Sixty-six percent report increased demand for new online courses. And students are clamoring for distance education at colleges that don’t offer it; 45 percent of institutions in that category report growing demand for new online courses and programs.

* Fewer than one-third of chief academic officers think that their faculty members accept the “value and legitimacy” of online education, a perception that hasn’t change much in the past six years. (Another survey, released in 2009, also reflected broad faculty suspicion about the quality of online courses.)

* More than two-thirds of institutions have a contingency plan to deal with a disruption from the H1N1 flu, and substituting online for face-to-face classes is an element in 67 percent of those plans.

* The overwhelming majority of the 4.6-million online students — over 82 percent — are undergraduates.

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