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Though certainly not a perfect measure, a good proxy for college success is enrollment. For higher education over all, the year-over-year numbers were discouraging. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment dropped 5.9 percent from the spring of 2020 to the spring of 2021. All sectors — public, private, and for-profit — experienced a decrease in undergraduate enrollment, but the colleges that were able to buck the trend and increase their numbers largely had common characteristics.
In general, the colleges that saw the biggest enrollment gains were “primarily online institutions,” those defined by the National Student Clearinghouse as “any institution that reports more than 90 percent of its undergraduate and graduate combined enrolling exclusively in distance-education courses prior to the pandemic.” For this group, enrollment continued to increase across the board — for all age groups and within all sectors. While overall undergraduate enrollment dropped 5.9 percent, at primarily online institutions it increased by 2.2 percent. And while overall graduate enrollment increased 4.4 percent across the board, at primarily online institutions it grew even more, at 6.9 percent. (And even those rosy numbers are probably understated. At Southern New Hampshire University, a primarily online institution that wasn’t included in the clearinghouse’s data, enrollments increased, according to its president, from 133,000 to 170,000 over the past year.)
While overall undergraduate enrollment dropped 5.9 percent, at primarily online institutions it increased by 2.2 percent.
If we broaden the category from primarily online institutions to what I would call heavily online institutions — large universities that have built up strong online options — the trends are clearer. Arizona State University, for example, has made major investments in online and hybrid education for years as part of its core strategy to strengthen the university’s ability to achieve its overall mission. Online education is treated as a means to expand access and share innovations throughout the institution. ASU recently reported record enrollment for the spring of 2021. Overall enrollment rose 7 percent from last year, and ASU Online was up 19 percent. The University of Central Florida has similarly invested for years in efforts to integrate online and hybrid into its main operations. Enrollment this past spring increased 3 percent over all, and 18 percent for online programs.
It is not just well-known institutions that have benefited. Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, where nearly half of undergraduates take at least one online course, saw its fall-2020 enrollment grow by 9 percent over all and 30 percent for freshmen. Old Dominion University, in Virginia, saw its fall enrollment increase by 2.5 percent over all and 4 percent for graduate programs, numbers that the university attributed to “a substantial increase in online courses."Similarly, the University of Texas at San Antonio, another heavily online institution, continued its multiyear enrollment growth with an increase of 6.6 percent in the fall of 2020, while crediting its investments in digital-learning programs for helping to transform the student experience.
For other institutions with a strong online presence that have found success over the past year, it isn’t clear how much of it was attributable to their online offerings. Purdue University, for example, is now stronger than ever; its overall enrollment increased 5 percent, and its freshman class grew 14 percent. In its announcement of the record first-year class, Purdue cited its reopening of the campus last fall, along with protective measures and general program quality and affordability, but it didn’t mention the role of Purdue University Global. Another example is Morgan State University, which has seen its applications for fall admission increase by more than 50 percent since before the pandemic. While nearly one-quarter of undergraduates at the Maryland institution took at least one online course pre-pandemic, administrators did not explicitly state that investment in online education was a key factor.
Not all heavily online institutions are flourishing, however. Arizona’s Rio Salado College, one of the largest heavily online community colleges in the country, saw enrollments drop 9 percent last fall, although its fortunes improved in the spring. Being online was not enough to avoid the pandemic’s significant exodus from public two-year colleges, which were down 11.3 percent over all.
Before the pandemic, higher education adopted online education at a remarkably steady pace, reaching the point when nearly two in five students took at least one online course per year (both fully online programs and face-to-face programs with online courses available). That slow, linear adoption changed rapidly last year in the rush to remote learning. While many colleges are planning to shift back to more-traditional on-campus offerings, the vast majority of faculty members and students have now experienced at least some form of online learning. Enrollment patterns and survey responses strongly indicate that many students want the option of online courses or programs in the future, and that if they take an online course, they expect a college to fully support it.
When should a college invest heavily in online education? It seems increasingly clear that the answer is: at least a decade ago.
We are likely to see colleges continue to gradually expand their online offerings in the future, but they will start at a higher level than before the pandemic. Whichever way the growth of online instruction proceeds, it is undeniable that online and hybrid education will become increasingly important for many, and possibly most, institutions — and that online education works best when it is woven into the overall fabric of a college or university.
The University of Central Florida provides perhaps the best example of an institution that has done this. Its Digital Learning Division manages not just the UCF Online program but also a broad-based faculty-development program supporting educational-technology use in online, remote, hybrid, and face-to-face courses. Another example is Georgia’s Albany State University, which before the pandemic supported nearly 20 percent of its undergraduates through fully online programs. At the same time the university supports blended programs in several locations, combining online and face-to-face courses, to allow working students to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Institutions like Central Florida and Albany State not only were better prepared for the pandemic but also are better prepared for what’s coming next.
Online education is not a panacea, and it is not the best option for all students, but for colleges, online-education strategy and investment will remain crucially important. When should a college invest heavily in online education? The second-best answer: now.