Higher education enrollments for all students fell, but more students enrolled in distance education courses than ever before. This is one of the findings of the new “Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017” released by the new Digital Learning Compass partnership.

The report uses data for the 2015 U.S. Department of Education IPEDS Fall Enrollment survey. Since the Fall term of 2012, IPEDS has collected distance education enrollment data. In the report, released today, analysis of both the most current year’s data (2015) and the trends over the past few years are examined. The distance education community is thankful that the Department continues collecting this data.

Who is Digital Learning Compass?

WCET is pleased to partner with the Babson Survey Research Group and e-Literate to update you on distance education enrollments. Together, the three organizations form the Digital Learning Compass, which seeks to be the definitive source of information on the patterns and trends of U.S. postsecondary distance learning. This work is made possible by the sponsorship of Online Learning Consortium, Pearson, and Tyton Partners. Thank you sponsors!

Prior to the IPEDS data collection, Babson conducted its own surveys. Since the IPEDS release, the three organizations worked together and separately in their analyses. We decided that we could accomplish more by partnering. We also like geeking-out on the numbers together.

The Percentage of Students Taking Distance Courses Increases

Again this year, the percentage of students studying exclusively at a distance and those enrolled in some distance courses increased over the previous year. Altogether, more than six million students were enrolled in distance courses in the Fall of 2015.

Title: Percentage of students taking distance courses, 2012-2015. For 2012, 12.6% were exclusively distance and 13.3% were some distance. For 2013, 13.1% were exclusively distance and 14.1% were some distance. For 2014, 13.9% were exclusively distance and 14.2% were some distance. For 2015, 14.3% were exclusively distance and 15.4% were some distance.

The percentage increase is due both to growing enrollments in distance education and decreased enrollments in non-distance course participation. On-campus enrollment has fallen by 5% since 2012. Note that these statistics do not include blended or hybrid courses that replace some of the face-to-face time with online activities.

Distance Education Enrollment Trends Vary Greatly By Sector

The public and the private not-for-profit sectors continue to enjoy healthy growth in distance education enrollments. Meanwhile, the for-profit sector continued its trend of losses. For the for-profit sector, it is important to note that a majority of institutions in that sector actually increased enrollments. A small number of the larger for-profit institutions account for the downturn in the overall numbers for that sector.

Title: Year to year change in distance enrollments, degree-granting institutions, 2012-2015. For 2012 to 2013: Publics increased 161,242 students, non-profits increased 98,480, and for profits declined by 73,577. For 2013 to 2014, publics increased by 113, 154, non-profits increased by 97,976, and for-profits decreased by 27,281. For 2014 to 2015, publics increased by 207,348, non-profits increased by 109,469, and for-profits decreased by 90,442.

While public institutions enjoyed the largest growth, the increases represent a 13.4% change from 2012 to 2015. Over the same time period, the private not-for-profit sector has grown distance education enrollments by 40.0% and private, for-profit institutions have lost 18.0% of their enrollments. Hmmm….guess those numbers will really change in the future if Purdue acquires Kaplan!

It is interesting to note how different sources treat these numbers. One very recent article cited that “fierce competition has tamped down the once-frantic pace of growth,” while another trumpeted growth with a headline declaring that “colleges rush to ramp up online classes.” Are you feeling frantic or rushed…or just confused? Growth is sustained only when done thoughtfully.

What’s Next?

If you would like to learn more, I suggest going to the Digital Learning Compass site and download the full report. Many thanks to WCET’s Rosa Calabrese and WICHE’s Jon Fellers for the work on creating this website!

You can watch an archive of a WCET webcast in which the results were discussed.

Later this year, we will be releasing additional “in-depth” reports that examine particular aspects of the data. If you would like to sponsor such a report, let me know.

Next week watch for interviews regarding the differences in distance education definitions.

My Digital Learning Compass friends and I encourage your feedback and questions.


Russ Poulin holding a baseball bat.Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
rpoulin@wiche.edu    @russpoulin


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