New Government Data Sheds Light on Online Learners 

One in four college students took an online course in fall 2012, according to government statistics.

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Arizona has the highest percentage of students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses, government data show.

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​Despite speculation that online education is rapidly changing the face of higher education, a new set of government data shows students might not be embracing virtual learning at the pace previously estimated.

About 5.4 million students, or one in four, took at least one distance education course during the fall of 2012, according to data released earlier this month ​by the National Center for Education Statistics.

[Explore whether online learning will lower the cost of your degree.]

While that may be a significant number of students, it's 1.7 million fewer than reported previously in the annual Babson Survey Research Group survey,​ the former benchmark of online learning. And​ 74 percent of students were not enrolled in any distance education courses at all.

The government data was released in June​ as a series of Web tables looking at online learners by state, region, institution and a number of other factors. The National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, collected data from institutions eligible for Title IV financial aid. 

"This gives us complete data for the first time in over a decade," says Russell Poulin, interim co-executive director for WCET, an organization that advocates for effective technology use in higher education. "We'll be able to go back and see what the growth has been." 

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The number of students studying online at for-profit schools was among the most interesting part of the data, Poulin says. In fall 2012, 925,495 students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses at private, for-profit institutions – or 35 percent of all students enrolled solely online.

"It actually doesn't surprise me," Poulin says. "But what I hear over and over again from people who should be more knowledgeable is that they still equate distance education with for-profit."

The data also shed light on the number of online learners by region.

The Plains​ had 23 percent of students studying exclusively online, the highest percentage, followed by the Southwest, which had 20 percent. But other regions, including New England and what the data referred to as the Mid East, the Great Lakes and the Far West, ​didn't even have percentages in the double digits. 

[Learn how to tell if your online program is accredited.]

"There's a significant difference as you look around the country," says Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois—Springfield. "The real strength is across the Plains and I’m not too surprised just because of how dispersed the population is."

The numbers in the Southwest make sense, he says, because the University of Phoenix, Arizona State University and other schools that enroll large numbers of online learners are located there. Schroeder expects the percentages to increase in the Far West as the University of California and the California State University systems expand their online learning offerings.

Other key findings include: 

  • Graduate students are more likely than undergraduates to study exclusively online. Of the 2.9 million graduate students in the U.S., 22 percent of them studied exclusively online. Among undergraduates, 11 percent pursued distance education exclusively. 
  • Of students enrolled exclusively in distance education, 51 percent, or slightly more than half, were reported to be in the same state as their institution.
  • Arizona, West Virginia and Iowa had the highest percentage of students enrolled in exclusively online courses, with 48 percent, 40 percent and 39.7 percent of all students respectively. Those states are home to some of the schools with the most online learners, including University of Phoenix, American Public University System and Kaplan University, respectively.
  • In total, 33,563 students located outside of the U.S. were enrolled in exclusively online courses, or 1.3 percent of all students taking solely distance education courses​. Those numbers could include Americans abroad or international students.
  • Institutions in Kansas drew the largest percentage of undergraduate students located outside of the U.S. studying exclusively online – 35.8 percent – while New York drew the largest percentage of graduate students outside the U.S., at 14.8 percent.
  • At tribal colleges, 2.6 percent of students take exclusively distance education courses, while the percentage at historically black colleges and universities is 3.8. 

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center. ​