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Online enrollment is booming, report finds

With more and more students pursuing online degree programs, growth in online enrollment has eclipsed that of traditional campus-based enrollment, a recent survey of online learning shows.

"The rate of growth in online enrollments is 10 times that of the rate in all higher education," said Dr. I. Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group and professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College. Allen co-authored the study with Dr. Jeff Seaman, also co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group.

The College Board and Babson Survey Research Group polled more than 2,500 higher education academic leaders about online enrollment and their attitudes toward online education. The institutions included in the analysis represent 80 percent of all higher education enrollment. For survey purposes, online classes were defined as those where at least 80 percent of the content was delivered online. Face-to-face classes were considered to be courses where 0 to 29 percent of the content was delivered online.

The survey, "Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011," is the ninth annual survey of online education, previously conducted by the Sloan Consortium. This year, the report was produced by Babson with sponsorship from Sloan and other entities.

Report shows continued growth in online education

More than 6 million students took at least one online course in the fall of 2010, up from 5.6 million in 2009. In 2002, that number was just 1.6 million.

But growth rates among disciplines varied. Enrollment declined in psychology and education programs, surged in engineering and remained steady in social sciences, business, liberal arts, and computer and information sciences.

"There is a wide variety in rate of growth of online enrollments among different colleges and universities, and also among different programs within the same institution," Allen said in a statement. "For example, fully online health sciences programs show higher growth than online programs in other disciplines."

The growth rate of total enrollment in online classes also has fluctuated from year to year. It peaked in the fall of 2005, when there was a 36.5 percent increase over 2004. In 2010, the growth rate was 10.1 percent, which was lower than the previous three years.

"While growth rates have declined somewhat from previous years, we see no evidence that a dramatic slowdown in online enrollments is on the horizon," Allen said.

As in recent years, a substantial majority of colleges and universities (66 percent) reported that online learning is a vital component of their overall education delivery strategy. A similar proportion of academic leaders, 67 percent, believe that online education is as good as or better than in-person instruction.

While those attitudes toward online education were only slightly higher than they had been in 2010, they made a striking comparison with the results of the first Sloan Consortium report on online learning, which included data from both 2003 and 2003. In 2002, only 49 percent of schools saw online learning as critical to their long-term strategy. And in 2003, only 57 percent of academic leaders believed that online education was as good as or better than in-person instruction.

However, the proportion of chief academic officers who believe their faculty members accept the value and legitimacy of online education has remained steady over the last eight years, at less than one-third.