Online Course Enrollment Climbs for 10th Straight Year

A new study finds that online education continues to grow despite declining faculty support.

More than 6.7 million college students took an online course in fall 2011, up 9.3 percent from the previous year.
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Faculty support for online education fell to its lowest level since 2005, just as enrollment in online college courses hit an all time high, according to a report released today by the Babson Survey Research Group.

More than 6.7 million students—32 percent of total higher ed enrollment—took at least one online course through a university during fall 2011, up from roughly 6.1 million students the year prior, according to "Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States." Responses by academic officials from 2,820 colleges and universities, including both for-profit and nonprofit institutions, were included in the annual report.

"The growth of online learning underscores this need for quality, flexible education programs that meet the demands of our 21st-century workforce," Todd Hitchcock, senior vice president of online solutions at Pearson Learning Solutions, one of the report's sponsors, said in a statement.

Schools appear to be responding to that demand, with 62.4 percent of the colleges surveyed in 2012 offering fully online degree programs, compared with just 32.5 percent in 2002, according to the report.

[Discover how to tell good online programs from the bad.]

While the percentage of schools wading into the deep end of virtual education by offering entire programs online has nearly doubled in the last decade, faculty members on the whole have grown more resistant to virtual instruction, the report notes.

Only 30.2 percent of the officials surveyed in fall 2012 said their faculty members "accept the value and legitimacy of online education," the lowest level reported since fall 2005 when only 27.6 percent of administrators said their faculty backed online education.

A lack of faculty support is just one obstacle schools must overcome before online instruction is more widely adopted. A lack of student discipline and poor retention rates were also cited by administrators as areas of concern, according to the report.

For students, however, program quality, financial aid, and employer acceptance ranked as their top concerns about online education, according to an earlier study by Learning House. The online education company surveyed 1,500 students either enrolled or planning to enroll in an online degree program.

[Learn the ins and outs of financing your online degree.]

Despite reservations by students and faculty, participation in online courses increased for the 10th year in a row, even as overall enrollment in higher education declined, the Babson study notes. But the 9.3 percent growth of online learning in fall 2011 is much slower than the peak in fall 2005, when the number of students enrolled in at least one online course increased 36.5 percent from the previous year.

Slower annual growth is due, in part, to the larger base of students already taking online courses, the report's authors note, adding that a still steady influx of new online students indicates the upward trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

"A plateau for online enrollments may be approaching," they write. "But there is no evidence that it has arrived yet."

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