Distance education enrollment data continue to show growth. But, we wondered why. Is the motivation to serve more students, to make money, both, neither, or a complex set of other issues? We had heard many theories, often delivered with absolute certainty, but little proof.

One of the reasons I wanted to ask these questions was my experience on a recent panel. Another presenter claimed that colleges had only one interest in distance education: money. I’m not that cynical. While I agree that we can’t lose money, that is a damning message about higher education. Then again, we do have college athletics, so maybe I’m wrong.

In mid-January, we asked WCET members for their opinions about the reasons for growth. And they delivered. We received 192 responses to our two-question survey. This post highlights their thinking. All quotes are verbatim. See the entire list of responses.

The Data

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recently released higher education enrollment numbers for the Fall of 2016. Phil Hill of e-Literate wrote a nice overview (Fall 2016 IPEDS First Look: Continued growth in distance education in US) highlighting the distance education enrollment growth since 2012, when NCES began collecting that data. Taking the data from Phil’s post, it is easy to calculate the enrollment growth over the last five years.

2012 2016 % Growth
All Students 20,237,911 20,209,781 -0.1%
Exclusive DE 2,287,168 2,974,836 30.1%
Some DE 2,694,715 3,325,743 23.4%
At least one DE 4,981,883 6,300,579 26.5%
No DE 15,256,028 13,909,202 -8.8%

As you can see, while the number and percentage of ALL students enrolled in higher education is slightly down, the number of students taking all courses at a distance has grown by 30.1%. Meanwhile, the number and percentage of students taking no distance courses has decreased.

Before getting to the results of our survey, let me provide a caveat that does not need to be stated, but I will anyway. In the comment part of the survey, several people said that the answers would vary greatly depending on the institution and local circumstances. Yup, that’s true. As with any survey, we are trying to discern trends or interesting outliers. While local experiences may differ greatly from national tendencies, we can still try to discern commonalities and trends. Oh yes, a second caveat…this survey is unscientific. Many are not, but I have the good manners to say so. On with the results…

Gauging Feelings on Cannibalization, Access vs. Money, and Hybrid Growth

first question in survey "In my opinion, the growth in students studying completely at a distance..."The first question sought to obtain member opinions about common themes that we have heard in those observing distance education enrollment growth.

Is Distance Ed Cannibalizing On-campus Enrollments?

Some respondents worry that the growth in distance education is not really adding new students, but is instead cannibalizing existing enrollments. Of those responding:

  • More than one-third (33.3%) agreed that face-to-face enrollments suffer because of the increases in distance education.
  • Close to half (45.8%) thought that distance education did not affect face-to-face enrollment and they were typically serving students whom they would not otherwise enroll.
  • Others decided not to choose either option, presumably because they thought both or neither was true. Some may have come from fully online institutions.

Graph of answers to question "growth in stduents studying completely at a distance." Expense of F2F enrollments (33.3%), does not affect F2F enrollments as distance students do not come to campus (45.8%), is primarily focused on + funding over serving new students (19.3%), is primarily focused on serving new students over + funding (27.1%), is leading to more blended/hybrid options (64.6%)Unless the institutions planned to change their enrollment patterns towards more distance education, having a third of respondents think that increases are coming at the “expense of face-to-face enrollments” may indicate a political problem on some campuses.

Is the focus on distance education focused on serving “new” students or is it a “cash cow”?

In the open-ended responses reported later in this post, both opinions are offered. Less than half of the survey-takers decided to provide a response on these two questions. That may indicate uncertainty about the motivations resulting in the growth in distance education enrollment, belief that there were other primary factors, or (as one respondent suggested) that the options were poorly worded. For those who responded:

  • One-in-five (19.3%) respondents felt that their institution was primarily interested in additional funding.
  • Just over one-quarter (27.1%) of respondents felt that the primary focus was on serving new students.

Is distance education growth leading to more blended/hybrid learning options?

The NCES distance education enrollment statistics gathered in its IPEDS surveys do not ask about blended/hybrid learning. WCET has suggested they do so, as there is much anecdotal evidence that use of these modalities is increasing. Nearly two-thirds (64.6%) of survey respondents agreed that blended/hybrid options are growing.

Members had Much to Say About the Growth in Distance Education Enrollments

question 2: please provide opinions that you have about the growth in students who are studying completely at a distance.We wanted to allow members to give their opinions about their views about growth without trying to lead them too much than we already did in the first question. And they delivered. More than three-quarters (75.7%) provided comments. Below are both the most common responses and some less common responses that provided interesting, insightful, or unique perspectives. I tried to roughly categorize the comments. Some comments counted in more than one category and other comments eluded classification.

Access and Convenience are the Primary Reasons for Growth

Eighty respondents cited access and/or convenience as the main purpose for their distance education offerings. Here is a sample of their quotes:

  • “Convenience! The growth and shift are all about focusing on the student and their needs and availability.”
  • “Students often need to be able to work while completing a degree at the same time. This often means that distance education is the best fit for this growing number of students.”
  • “I can get the exact degree that I am looking for, not ‘something comparable’ and I am more worried about getting the education over getting the ‘college experience.’”
  • “Offering distance education courses also help our face to face students complete their degrees and for some in a timely fashion. These programs do not cannibalize or compete one another, they assist students in completing their degrees.”
  • “The reality is that–at least for our institution–the majority of these students are within 100 miles of the residential campus. Last fall, this was 58%, with 38% being fewer than 50 miles from campus). Before “distance” education, they would have either commuted or just not have participated at all.”
  • “We will continue to see more distance growth than face-to-face. Circumstances of the world we live in now may require people to get more instruction throughout their lives. They are not going to keep physically coming back to universities to update their skills or change careers.”
  • “If we want an educated populace, we have to do all that we can to improve access to education. Modality of instruction is not just a technological issue, nor is it just a pedagogical issue. Perhaps most importantly, it is an equity issue.”

The number and tone of these replies was heartening to me as respondents seemed to be focused on a desire to reach more students. Additionally, respondents seemed aware of the changing nature of students – both in demographic shifts and in the experience students are seeking or require due to life’s demands.

There were some that were more focused on the money. Let’s see what they had to say.

For Some the Focus is on Growing Funding

There were just thirteen respondents who cited additional funding as the main driver for distance education. Given the huge focus by both the public and non-profit sectors in growing their enrollments, certainly shoring up eroding funding sources is part of the mix. Some of the opinions offered:

  • “From the student perspective it’s all about access and fully DE programs offer the flexibility they want and the market needs. From the institution’s perspective it’s about revenue and offering programs that will expand their ‘pie.’”
  • “My institution believes it will save it from all the state funding cuts, but it has not invested the appropriate amount of money in technology to grow at the rate it had hoped to. Distance ed is not cheap to offer.”
  • “Mainly targeting international students for the increased tuition money since the political environment does not encourage international students to come to the US anymore.”
  • “I think there are more distance students because there are more seats open for them, and these are being aggressively marketed, often with the help of OPM companies. The marketing is being done by universities looking for “cash cows.” This is an opinion that is backed by what I am hearing from my peers.”
  • “I am very in support of distance education and believe it has tremendous potential and reaches students who need it. At the same time, I’m concerned that Universities tend to view it as only the “cash cow” and it becomes a business rather than education. At the same time, that business approach has allowed a lot of new and interesting things. So, like all phenomenon, it’s never just one thing.”

It’s Not an Either/Or Between Access and Money

Several took a broader, more complex point-of-view:

  • “This is not an either/or. Offering flexible options for students leads to better retention, persistence and time to degree.”
  • “I checked both ‘…focused on funding…’ & ‘…focused on new students…’ because our university seems to be equally focused on both – we desperately need more funding, AND our mission is to serve rural areas of the state. We seem to be making reasonable progress in both areas.”
  • “I would say that it’s not as cut and dried as ‘coming at the expense of FTF.’ Most of our students take a mix of online and FTF courses. They turn to online when they cannot get classes they need on ground due to conflicts with scheduling (due in part to their own schedules) or filled classes on-ground.”
  • “I did not select either of the first two options above because each is partially true, partially false. Indeed, we are seeing a growth in exclusive DE students that does not affect our F2F enrollments, but we are also seeing an even larger growth in our resident students taking DE courses because of convenience, scheduling conflicts, and/or full classes. While this decreases the F2F enrollments, it does not decrease the overall headcount of our resident students.”

What About Quality?

There were some concerns voiced about growth and advice about how to address it:

  • “It is critically important that we ensure that the same academic rigor exists for distance learning and face to face. It is also important to provide adequate student support services to ensure student success.”
  • “Brick and mortar will have to be better to keep enrollments.”
  • “To prioritize spending in light of shrinking budgets, many institutions will need to assess whether they can afford to maintain equitable access to quality student services and support for both fully online students and on-campus/hybrid students. Service to fully online students requires different hours of operation, access modes and procedures than service to on-campus or hybrid students. Providing consistent quality support to both groups, requires investment in both operational configurations.”

Growth Has Many Additional Components

Besides access and money, respondents provided additional suggestions for factors that drive the growth of distance education:

  • Solving space problems: “As our face-to-face population grows, providing more online course delivery and hybrid courses are the only way to cope with the lack of additional classroom space. Most of our online students also come to face-to-face classes on campus.”
  • Program choices: “The discipline students are studying really make a difference. Some students who would have previously taken face to face courses now have online options which they are choosing.”
  • It’s complicated: “Ultimately, I think we are trying to herd cats here. Also, there’s too much nuance covered up in those aggregate numbers. Any attempts to convey this information should be contextualized with statements about how the Web is generally adding new modalities and new opportunities for learning, but tracking those changes is complicated.”
  • Students are more tech-savvy: “It may be because of the “digital” generation(s) and their technological savvy and/or the busy work life that many students have.”
  • Employer acceptance: “Don’t overlook the growing acceptance by employers of this modality in job preparation. As online courses are viewed as more legitimate, it makes sense that more students are willing to invest in them.”
  • Perceptions of the value of education: “The value of education has slipped; more precisely, the perception of the value of education has slipped, reducing it in our standings of personal priorities. Therefore, rather than altering one’s life to focus completely on education as priority one, education can integrate neatly and less painfully into and among other life priorities. Oddly enough, even with perceptions down, the need for expanded education has never been higher.”
  • More older students: “Can we disaggregate the IPEDS data by age? I believe the students studying completely at a distance are likely older (working, etc. also). “
  • Easier to cheat: “At my institution of 1500+ sections online each semester, only a tiny fraction use any kind of proctoring so the assessments for those that don’t use the proctoring likely have a greater number of cheaters…While the flexibility of DE is obviously of great benefit, I wonder how many take DE classes where there may be a perception (and in many cases a reality) that cheating is easier.”
  • Fewer high school students: “It is very complex, including declining numbers of high school graduates who would have traditionally taken a college prep program…”
  • Less money for students: “Fewer middle class parents have the funds to sponsor full time students thanks to the direction our government is headed in.”

The Promise of Hybrid

Respondents to question 1 indicated that they envision great growth in blended/hybrid options. Here are some of their observations:

  • “I personally believe that the best learning happens in hybrid courses.”
  • “Our face-to-face numbers have been dropping while our hybrid or online classes are rising. No one seems to want to sit in a classroom for that many hours a week.”
  • “Students are also more technically aware, sometimes more than faculty, and are asking for more web-based materials. This is encouraging the expansion of hybrid options (replacing seat time), as well as ‘web enhanced’ (no seat time replacement, but materials are available electronically).”
  • “We do see the growth of blended/hybrid combinations: 1) low-residency in-person with online, and 2) asynchronous online with synchronous distance education (video-conferencing).”
  • “College administrators and their appointed online-instruction service-providing staff still don’t understand the critical difference between blended and completely online and rely on in-service platforms (F2F workshops, synchronous webinars, etc.) that inadvertently model and promote blended instead of online practices. Their rationale is that this is what traditional teachers will respond to. The problem is that they’re playing to teachers’ fears and prolonging in-person and synchronous methods that go against the grain of the exponential growth in preference for online asynchronous (anywhere-anytime) services. Instead of dipping their toes in the online waters, colleges need to jump in and learn how to swim.”

In Conclusion…

Thank you to everyone who responded. As we can see, the answers are not simple and will vary from place to place. Additionally, there is rarely a single motivation for any action.

My takeaways…

  • Most of our members are primarily motivated to help students who were not previously within higher education’s reach.
  • We should conduct more short, pop surveys.

For you…

  • What is your take on these questions now that you have seen the responses?
  • What other issues should we examine through short surveys?



Photo of Russ Poulin
Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis

WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
rpoulin@wiche.edu  @RussPoulin


CC Logo

Learn about WCET Creative Commons 4.0 License


2 replies on “Distance Ed Growth – Access is a Big Motivator, But It’s Complicated”

It is hard to judge “the promise of hybrid” when hybrid/blended is not on the survey, as WCET noted. Is it a promise when it already exists under the overgeneralized term “online” or DE (not synonymous, but overlapping, as DE could involve videos and a test). F2f can also involve DE students’ flying/driving in to campus sessions when the rest of the course is online– not just proctored exams or practica.

Evan Smith
University of Missouri

Comments are closed.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,398 other subscribers

Archive By Month

Blog Tags

Distance Education (316)Student Success (295)Online Learning (228)Managing Digital Learning (218)State Authorization (214)WCET (211)U.S. Department of Education (204)Regulation (197)Technology (168)Digital Learning (149)Innovation (125)Teaching (121)Collaboration/Community (114)WCET Annual Meeting (105)Course Design (103)Access (98)Professional Development (98)Faculty (88)Cost of Instruction (88)SAN (88)Financial Aid (84)Legislation (83)Completion (74)Assessment (69)Instructional Design (68)Open Educational Resources (66)Accreditation (65)COVID-19 (64)SARA (64)Accessibility (62)Credentials (62)Professional Licensure (62)Competency-based Education (61)Quality (61)Data and Analytics (60)Research (58)Diversity/Equity/Inclusion (57)Reciprocity (56)WOW Award (51)Outcomes (47)Workforce/Employment (46)Regular and Substantive Interaction (43)Policy (42)Higher Education Act (41)Negotiated Rulemaking (40)Virtual/Augmented Reality (37)Title IV (36)Practice (35)Academic Integrity (34)Disaster Planning/Recovery (34)Leadership (34)WCET Awards (30)Artificial Intelligence (29)Every Learner Everywhere (29)State Authorization Network (29)IPEDS (28)Adaptive/Personalized Learning (28)Reauthorization (28)Military and Veterans (27)Survey (27)Credits (26)Disabilities (25)MOOC (23)WCET Summit (23)Evaluation (22)Complaint Process (21)Retention (21)Enrollment (21)Correspondence Course (18)Physical Presence (17)WICHE (17)Cybersecurity (16)Products and Services (16)Forprofit Universities (15)Member-Only (15)WCET Webcast (15)Blended/Hybrid Learning (14)System/Consortia (14)Digital Divide (14)NCOER (14)Textbooks (14)Mobile Learning (13)Consortia (13)Personalized Learning (12)Futures (11)Marketing (11)Privacy (11)STEM (11)Prior Learning Assessment (10)Courseware (10)Teacher Prep (10)Social Media (9)LMS (9)Rankings (9)Standards (8)Student Authentication (8)Partnership (8)Tuition and Fees (7)Readiness and Developmental Courses (7)What's Next (7)International Students (6)K-12 (6)Lab Courses (6)Nursing (6)Remote Learning (6)Testing (6)Graduation (6)Proctoring (5)Closer Conversation (5)ROI (5)DETA (5)Game-based/Gamification (5)Dual Enrollment (4)Outsourcing (4)Coding (4)Security (4)Higher Education Trends (4)Mental Health (4)Fall and Beyond Series (3)In a Time of Crisis (3)Net Neutrality (3)Universal Design for Learning (3)Cheating Syndicates Series (3)ChatGPT (3)Enrollment Shift (3)Nontraditional Learners (2)Student Identity Verification (2)Cross Skilling/Reskilling (2)Virtual Summit (2)Higher Education (2)Title IX (1)Business of Higher Education (1)OPMs (1)Department of Education (1)Third-Party Servicers (1)microcredentials (1)Minority Serving Institution (1)Community College (1)