I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

The contours of a new online-education landscape are beginning to emerge.

For all the justified angst about drops in higher-ed enrollment last fall, one key trend has been overlooked: At many predominantly online institutions, enrollment went up — in some cases by quite a lot. I’ve been digging into some of the numbers and run through them below.

This trend is significant for at least two reasons. For one, it’s a marker of the way the pandemic continues to create (or exacerbate) haves and have-nots in higher education. Also, it is an early indicator of an evolving shake-up in the online-education arena. Students’ decisions to enroll in — or transfer to — colleges known for their online capabilities in both instruction and student services signal a market shift with long-term ramifications. That’s especially significant for any institution hoping to attract master’s- and professional-degree students, or undergrads who can’t attend full time.

Having made that declaration, I now must confess I’m not exactly sure what that shift will look like. But I do know changes are coming. And I’m not the only one.

Experts like Richard Garrett, chief research officer at Eduventures, are watching closely. He tells me he expects the lessons of last semester “will force more schools to do creative things” with their online offerings if they want to be able to compete with the big online players. It will accelerate their efforts “to occupy the middle ground between campus and online” to distinguish themselves, he said. The convenience factor alone won’t be enough of a draw. Leaders will need to find ways to enhance academic quality and lower costs — for students and budget-squeezed institutions alike.

In the same vein, panelists on an Upcea webinar I moderated last week on predictions for 2021said the experiences of the past year, as many colleges developed ways to meet students’ nonacademic needs through online tools, could be significant — that is, if institutions are able to keep them going. “All eyes are now on the ‘online-student experience,’” said John O’Brien, the president of Educause. “I don’t think that’s going to be optional anymore.” (O’Brien said he was channeling the education-technology blogger Michael Feldstein, who had pithily written in e-Literate that the online-student experience has become “the new climbing wall.”)

That all makes sense to me, and I’m taking to heart Garrett’s suggestion that I track the progress of ventures like the fledgling Degrees of Freedom in Vermont, which is developing a hybrid online and face-to-face model that pledges to be “affordable, flexible, and inclusive.” He calls it “a sign of things to come,” which it may well be in more ways than one. Not only is it hybrid, but it’s using the campus of a small, traditional, liberal-arts institution, Marlboro College, that recently went under.

The Vermont project is an undergraduate experiment. To me, the nontraditional-student and master’s-degree markets, where online-enrollment growth has already been pretty bullish, might get even more interesting. Let’s look into that and some other notable patterns in the fall-enrollment stats.

  • Nationally, undergraduate enrollment fell by 4.4 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020. But at predominantly online institutions, it increased by nearly 5 percent. And while graduate enrollment nationally did increase by almost 3 percent, at predominantly online institutions, it increased even more, by nearly 10 percent. (These data come from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which doesn’t name the 26 online institutions in that category but said they were mostly for-profits.)
  • Since I couldn’t tell if places like Southern New Hampshire University and some of the other nonprofit, online “mega universities” were included in the Clearinghouse’s tallies of online enrollments, I checked with a few of them myself. Here’s what I found: At Arizona State University, online enrollment of undergraduate and graduate students from fall 2019 to fall 2020 increased by more than 20 percent; at Southern New Hampshire, it was up by 18 percent; and at Western Governors University, it was up by nearly 7 percent.

In raw numbers, the year-over-year online-enrollment increases at these three institutions alone add up to more than 39,000. How many small colleges would it take to enroll that many students? You can do the math.

At Southern New Hampshire, undergraduates drove the online-enrollment growth. But at Arizona State and WGU, it was grad students (up by 23 percent at ASU and by nearly 11 percent at WGU). According to data Garrett’s been watching, graduate enrollment was also a factor in the growth at Capella University, an online for-profit institution.

While the trend of rising graduate online enrollment hasn’t been universal (it’s apparently fallen at the University of Maryland Global Campus, for one, Garrett said) I was surprised it’s a thing at all. After all, it was barely two years ago that higher-ed consultants including Eduventures and EAB were predicting big disruptions to the master’s-degree market, as students moved toward shorter and less-expensive programs as career boosters.

Clearly the pandemic is altering those trajectories. While many lower-income people, including those hit by furloughs and layoffs, gave up on attending college last fall, lots of early-career professionals were in a different boat. They were able to continue working, often from home, and maybe even found themselves with a little more free time. Garrett’s theory is that thousands of these people decided, “This is the time to invest in myself, come what may,” and enrolled in an online master’s program. “The pandemic,” he said, “gave them an extra shove.”

That makes sense to me. I’ve also been reading that since the pandemic began, enrollments have skyrocketed for courses and shorter programs offered via MOOC providers like edX, Coursera, and Future Learn. That, too, is worth watching, though, as Garrett noted, because those ventures don’t report a lot of information about completions, it’s hard to know “how much of that is just casual window shopping.”

It’s probably too early to make hard predictions about how the online-education market — and by inference, the industry — will be altered by the pandemic. And I really do think most students who can attend in person will be more than ready to do so just as soon as they can. But it’s already safe to say, as Garrett does, that at the graduate level, online “is increasingly a positive thing.” Also that at all levels of online education, the bar is higher for what students will expect.

Your thoughts? What interesting online-education trends do you see in the data or in your experience? Please share your observations with me via the email address below and I’ll try to include some of the responses in a future newsletter.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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