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Enrollment in Online Programs Flattening Out for Now

Enrollment growth in fully online courses for spring 2019, year over year

Enrollment growth in fully online courses for spring 2019, year over year. Source: "The Changing Landscape of Online Education, 2020" from Quality Matters and Eduventures Research

Enrollment for online education rose in 2019 at universities and colleges, but not as quickly as it had been doing in previous years. According to "The Changing Landscape of Online Education, 2020" (CHLOE), a growing number of schools have reported "stable" rather than "increasing" enrollment for their online programs. A report on the results found that while fully online course enrollment growth was "positive" at many schools, online education was "now common enough and significant enough at many schools" that it could "no longer outrun overall enrollment softness." Thus, the diagnosis of stability rather than growth.

Current events could be changing the landscape, however. In a special addendum to the report, CHLOE researchers noted, "As we publish this report, online learning faces an unprecedented challenge. Hundreds of colleges and universities are suspending face-to-face classes and relying on online capabilities that have spread throughout higher education in recent years to provide continuity of instruction and slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic." The next CHLOE survey, already in the planning stages, will include questions specifically regarding continuity of instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.

CHLOE is an annual survey among chief online officers (COOs) who answer questions regarding how online instruction is managed, delivered and supported at their schools. This year's survey, compiled in "CHLOE 4: Navigating the Mainstream," pulled responses from representatives at 367 U.S. colleges and universities, a 31 percent rise from last year. The project is jointly produced by quality assurance organization Quality Matters and Eduventures Research, the higher education research division of ACT/NRCCUA.

Among the findings of this year's report were these:

  • At community colleges, about 42 percent of online and blended associate programs were designated as fully online. For four-year schools, that count was 57 percent for bachelor's programs, 73 percent for master degree programs and 80 percent for non-degree graduate programs. According to the report, about four in 10 master students in 2019 were estimated to be studying fully online.
  • While online graduate programs dominated the virtual program landscape for 2019, most schools expected to launch additional fully online undergraduate programs in the next three years. Those with the largest number of existing online students were more likely to do so. Large-enrollment institutions (those with more than 7,500 fully or part-time online students) said they expected to launch an average of six new online graduate programs during the three-year period, about equivalent to the plans of mid-sized schools (those with between 1,000 and 7,500 online students). Small schools (those with under a thousand online students) reported that they expected to launch an average of three new graduate programs.
  • The newest survey verified findings from previous years on whether online education was seen as a "net generator of revenue" (chosen by 47 percent of respondents) or a "net cost" (26 percent). The report noted that distribution of online revenue was "most often folded into a general revenue distribution process to meet institutional priorities."
  • While CHLOE 4 stayed away from questions regarding actual costs of online education, researchers did ask COOs how tuition compared between online and on-campus programs. Nearly half (48 percent) said their online program pricing was "in line" with campus equivalents. "Premium" pricing for online offerings was the norm at 11 percent of schools, and an additional 5 percent typically charged more online. Five percent of respondents said their schools always priced online programs lower than the on-campus equivalent, and another 9 percent said this was generally the case. Public schools — especially community colleges — were more likely to charge a premium for online programs, and private schools less likely.
  • Among the 57 respondents who specifically reported charging a premium for their online programs, the leading reasons for doing so were higher delivery and support costs (mentioned by about 72 percent), higher maintenance costs (61 percent) and higher program development costs (about 60 percent). For those respondents who used lower online pricing, the primary reason was "pricing constraints," listed by about 76 percent, followed by an absence of campus-related costs, mentioned by 60 percent.
  • Nearly a quarter of institutions (24 percent) worked with an online program manager (OPM) for delivery of at least some online programs. The use of OPMs was mostly likely among regional private institutions (43 percent) and flagship universities (40 percent). On the other end, OPMs were far less likely to have a presence in community colleges (15 percent) and four-year low-enrollment schools (20 percent). The most likely reasons for using an OPM: Those companies had the expertise the institutions "lack," cited by nearly four in five respondents (78 percent), and they could "provide rapid scaling" or "rapid development" (49 percent and 48 percent, respectively). The most common reasons why OPMs weren't used was because schools felt they could "meet needs internally" (57 percent), they had concerns about upfront costs (48 percent) and they thought the revenue share was "unattractive" (46 percent).

The full CHLOE 4 report is available with registration on the Quality Matters website. A webinar with project co-lead Richard Garrett, Eduventures' chief research officer, will take place on Apr. 23, 2020.

Part 1 of Campus Technology's coverage of the CHLOE 4 report examined trends in preparation for online program participation and instruction.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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