Annual Sloan/Babson survey says more than 7 million college students are taking online courses

The annual Sloan/Babson survey has been released. “Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States” is the latest installment (the 11th) of the annual report looking at online learning in U.S. post-secondary institutions. We think of it as the Keeping Pace for higher education. Perhaps they think of Keeping Pace as the Sloan study for K-12 online learning. The key numbers, from the Executive Summary, are:

“The number of additional students taking at least one online course continued to grow at a rate far in excess of overall enrollments, but the rate was the lowest in a decade.

  • The number of students taking at least one online course increased by over 411,000 to a new total of 7.1 million.
  • The online enrollment growth rate of 6.1 percent is the lowest recorded in this report series.
  • The proportion of higher education students taking at least one online course is at an all-time high of 33.5 percent.”

As Keeping Pace has discussed in our 2013 report and elsewhere, nobody knows exactly how many K-12 students across the country are taking one or more online courses. All evidence, however, suggests that it is nowhere close to the one-third of post-secondary students who are taking at least one online course. The Sloan study again demonstrates that post-secondary remains far ahead of K-12 in implementing online learning.

The slowing growth rate has been mentioned in some other blogs about the report, and while it’s a notable data point it’s also important to note that the number of students taking online courses is still increasing at a substantial rate. The 6.1% growth rate is calculated from an ever-increasing base, so the fact that growth rates are decreasing is not necessarily a surprise. If one reviews the summary too quickly it can be misread to suggest slower growth than has actually taken place in the last year. Although the growth rate is the slowest in the report series, the increase in the number of students taking online courses was bigger than it was in 2007, for example. (I didn’t analyze all years, but looked at three years. The 411,000 is bigger than 2007 and smaller than 2008 and 2009.)

Another way to look at the data is to say that if the 6.1% growth rate is maintained, half of all college students will be taking an online course in 2020. For middle and high school students who plan to go on to college, comfort with taking an online course will increasingly be part of what it means to be “college-ready.”

I’ll look at other key points from the report in an upcoming blog post.