Research

Online Enrollment Continues Double-Digit Growth

Extra Credit Babson College associate professor Elaine Allen discusses the findings of the "Learning on Demand" survey, including economic factors driving growth.

More than 4.6 million college and university students took at least one course online in 2008--more than a quarter of all post-secondary students in the United States. This represents 17 percent growth over the previous year, drastically outpacing higher education's overall enrollment growth rate of 1.2 percent in the same period, according to a new report released this week.

The study, "Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009," was a joint effort of the Sloan Consortium, the College Board, and the Babson Survey Research Group in the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurial Research at Babson College. The researchers reported that current post-secondary enrollment levels represent a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent since 2002, when about 1.6 million students were taking at least one online course.

For the seventh-annual study, researchers surveyed more than 2,500 colleges and universities in the United States. These institutions reported overwhelmingly that increased demand for both new and existing programs has been a driving factor in the growth of online learning, including about two-thirds of institutions citing demand for new offerings and nearly three-quarters of institutions experiencing higher demand for current offerings, according to Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, who spoke in a recorded statement. (See video sidebar.)

"Online education continues to establish itself as demand remains strong and new applications materialize, such as contingency planning for campus emergencies," said Frank Mayadas, special advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funded the study. "We believe demand will fuel sustained growth especially within public universities and community colleges, raising the need to share research, optimal methods for faculty training, and other best practices to new levels of importance."

Babson's Allen also cited economic factors driving growth in higher education as a whole, including online. "One reason for a high growth rate in higher education is, in fact, the economy in a downturn," she said. "When we have a downturn in the economy, we tend to see people going back to school. They go back to school because they have been laid off or lost their job; they go back to school to improve their credentials in case they get laid off. So we see a higher demand for all types of classes in higher education."

Both an executive summary and a complete copy of the report, with a wide range of additional data, can be accessed freely on the Sloan Consortium's site here.

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