In an extended conversation with the U.S. Department of Education (US ED) IPEDS personnel, they confirmed which distance education enrollment counts colleges should be reporting to the Department’s IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) survey.
The Department representatives also wondered why we did not highlight some of the errors made by colleges in reporting their enrollments. They encouraged colleges to follow the IPEDS definitions and instructions and to call them if they have any questions.
A few weeks ago Phil Hill of the e-Literate blog and I reported on anomalies that we found when colleges reported their distance education enrollments to the U.S. Department of Education. Earlier this year the Department released data from its Fall Enrollment 2012 IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) survey. For the first time in a long time, the survey included counts of distance education students.
Undercounts: Some Colleges Did Not Report All of Their Distance Education Students
The first report was from a college that did not report any of their students who were enrolled in continuing education, self-support (receive no state funding) colleges. We were surprised at this and learned that other colleges also did not report all their distance education students.
In following up, some whom we contacted were unaware that there were self-support entities on some campuses that offered for-credit courses leading to full degrees. They do exist. The most common instance is with public colleges that have a College of Continuing Education. Jim Fong, Director, University Professional and Continuing Education Association’s Center for Research and Consulting, said that his organization has about 370 members. In a survey a couple years ago, about 91% of the respondents to his inquiry have for-credit offerings. He did not have data on how many are self-support units.
Reasons for the Undercount
We heard different reasons for not reporting these students:
Misunderstanding the IPEDS instructions. The survey instructs colleges to: “Exclude students who are not enrolled for credit. For example, exclude: Students enrolled exclusively in Continuing Education Units (CEUs).” Of course, this instruction is intended to reference non-credit, CEU courses….not colleges of continuing education. It is conceivable that someone may have misread the instruction.
They understood, but it was too difficult to do. For some colleges the data systems for the continuing education colleges are different than those for the main campus. Merging the data is difficult and would take calculations by hand.
They chose not to report the correct enrollments to IPEDS. A college might decide that it does not wish to report different enrollment numbers to IPEDS than it reported to the state, even though the requirements for each government entity are different.
Their data system was not ready. One college said that their data system simply was not ready to report the correct numbers.
Response from the Department
The Department was offered a chance to provide a written response, but they declined. In their discussion with me they noted:
Most of the reasons given above were not due to the IPEDS definition, but were due to errors or inaction by the colleges. That’s a fair point.
The definition asks colleges to: “Include all students enrolled for credit (courses or programs that can be applied towards the requirements for a postsecondary degree, diploma, certificate, or other formal award), regardless of whether or not they are seeking a degree or certificate.” There is no mention of how the courses are funded or whether the courses are offered by a continuing education college. They were very clear that students enrolled in for-credit courses in colleges of continuing education should have been included in the counts. The Department will not issue a clarifying document, but they plan to inform the state IPEDS coordinators when they next meet.
Overcounts: Some Colleges Using the Wrong Definition of “Distance Education”
As we talked to colleges, we learned that some colleges did not use the definition of “distance education.” IPEDS defines a “distance education course” as: “A course in which the instructional content is delivered exclusively via distance education. Requirements for coming to campus for orientation, testing, or academic support services do not exclude a course from being classified as distance education.”
Reasons for the Overcount
We heard different reasons for using their own definitions:
Misunderstanding the IPEDS instructions. One institution said that it tried to get a clarification on the definition and was still confused even after contacting the IPEDS call center.
They understood, but it was too difficult to do. The state and/or an accrediting agency may already have its own definition that differs from the IPEDS definition and it would be difficult to create another classification just for IPEDS. A few examples:
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges defines distance education as when “a majority of instruction (interaction between students and instructors and among students) in a course occurs when students and instructors are not in the same place.” By majority, colleges are interpreting that to mean more than 50% of the instruction.
The Texas Coordinating Board defines a “Fully Distance Education Course” as having “mandatory face-to-face sessions totaling no more than 15 percent of the instructional time.” Therefore 85% of the instruction is at a distance.
They chose not to report the correct enrollments to IPEDS. A college might decide that it does not wish to report different enrollment numbers to IPEDS than it reported to the state, even though the requirements are different.
Response from the Department
In their discussion with me they noted:
Most of the reasons given above were not due to the IPEDS definition, but were due to errors or inaction by the colleges. Once again, that’s a fair point.
The IPEDS “distance education” definition (cited above) defines a distance education as being nearly 100% at a distance. The definition is clearly listed in the IPEDS Glossary. While they understand that states may have differing reporting requirements, they were very clear that they expect colleges to use this nearly 100% definition in reporting distance education enrollments. Again, the Department will not issue a clarifying document, but they plan to inform the state IPEDS coordinators when they next meet.
Some final thoughts:
As shown with the “distance education” definition examples, a college in Texas would need to report distance education as 51+% of a course to SACS, 86+% of a course to its Coordinating Board, and nearly 100% of a course to IPEDS. You can see the difficulties they face.
The Department did not seem to think that the errors from these anomalies were significant. From the enrollments numbers that were reported to IPEDS, about one-in-eight students take all of their courses at a distance and about one-in-four take at least some distance courses. Those are significant numbers and I’d like to see both colleges and IPEDS strive to make future counts as accurate as possible.
Those colleges waiting for a clarification from the Department will not see anything dramatic. They may want to call them if they have any questions or feel that they might not be reporting enrollments correctly.
Finally, we could ask the question as to whether the Department’s definition of “distance education” is a useful one? On the plus side, it is a clear definition. On the negative side, the “nearly 100%” definition does not reflect current practice. But, that’s a question for a different day. And it is a discussion that may need to include accreditors and states.
For now, let’s use the definitions as presented by the Department so that IPEDS has accurate data to inform federal financial aid policies.
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