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Online Solutions to the Enrollment Boom

Community colleges don't have to resort to midnight classes if they have a viable online learning program.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher According to a report from the Pew Research Center, 2008 saw an increase of 300,000 students attending college over the prior year, and virtually all of that increase was in community colleges. Data from 2009 are not yet available, but the American Association of Community Colleges reports growth rates of 10 percent or higher at many campuses this fall. The Pew report notes that the recession is a factor in the increase, as is the lower cost of community colleges compared to four-year institutions, and the steady rise in high school graduation rates (up almost 10 percent since 1967).

A recent article in The New York Times highlighted an odd set of solutions to the "problem" of an enrollment boom at community colleges. The article noted how many community colleges have added classes in off-hours--very off-hours in some cases, like at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where a writing class runs from 11:45 pm to 2:30 am, and Sociology 101 starts at midnight. Clackamas Community College (OR) is holding a welding class that lasts until 2:00 am, and other schools, according to the article, are starting classes as early as 6:00 am. While there are some advantages to holding classes at these times (for instance, for people who work nontraditional hours), there also are some serious problems, such as finding dynamic instructors who can keep students engaged and awake. Other community colleges are renting space to accommodate the influx of students and turning tennis courts into parking lots.

I wonder if another solution--online learning--might be a better approach to overcrowding. The private sector thinks so. A report from market research firm Ambient Insight forecasts significant growth in online learning in education: 18 percent in K-12 and 8 percent in higher education over the next five years. Education is second only to healthcare (projected at 20 percent) in expectations for growth in online learning.

Institutions without distance learning programs obviously cannot ramp up the required infrastructure, course management system, courses, marketing, and trained instructors overnight, but they probably should get after it. The recession will end sometime, and students will be less likely to put up with bizarre class schedules and more likely to look for convenience and quality. Schools such as Rio Salado (AZ) and Miami Dade (FL), both featured presenters at CT's College Graduation Virtual Summit (go here and click on events), are well ahead of the game. More than half of Rio Salado's 60,000+ students are online learners, and Miami Dade's virtual college has doubled its enrollment in four years.

We'll cover this topic in more depth in our March issue.

-- Geoff Fletcher, Editorial Director

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About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

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