Distance education – pot of gold?


Most public institutions of higher education that I know of are chasing a pot of gold at the end of the distance education rainbow. In other words, in an effort to increase revenue grow enrollment “make higher education more accessible,” these institutions are trying to grow the number of distance education courses and programs they offer. Whether it’s by contracting with a for-profit online program management (OPM) company or by building internal capacity (or a combination of the two) , institutions of higher education are trying to “scale” their distance education offerings. I am an active member of a statewide organization of distance education professionals here in Virginia, and all member institutions are trying to find that pot of gold.

So, I wanted to know how many 4-year public institutions in the United States have really “scaled up” distance education recently. To get the answer, I downloaded the most recent IPEDS data for all 759 4-year public institutions. Specifically, I downloaded the data on Fall enrollments of students “enrolled exclusively in distance education courses.” There are all kinds of problems with definitions around distance education and around the coding of students in these courses/programs; I’ve written about that fuzzy math. But, these are the best data we have nationally, so I’m rolling with them.

I looked for institutions that met two (perhaps arbitrary) criteria:

  • As of Fall 2016, they had at least 1,000 students enrolled exclusively in distance education, and
  • Fall 2016 enrollment of students enrolled exclusively in distance education was at least twice what it was in Fall 2013.

In other words, these are institutions that have at least doubled their enrollments over four years and are now enrolling a critical mass (more than 1,000 students) of students exclusively through distance education. That is, they have, to some extent, “scaled” their distance education enrollments. Here’s what I found. First, for graduate students:

Graduate students

Institution Name Fall ’16 Fall ’15 Fall ’14 Fall ’13
Arizona State University-Skysong 5440 3875 2596 2041
The University of Texas at Arlington 5032 3772 2310 1823
Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus 4406 3272 1757 497
Louisiana State University-Shreveport 1916 1402 714 87
West Texas A & M University 1769 1437 1040 306
Rutgers University-New Brunswick 1615 1503 1513 598
University of South Carolina-Columbia 1547 1427 56 33
University of Iowa 1531 1403 1388 209
Florida Atlantic University 1365 964 718 659
University of Kansas 1252 750 507 442


That’s it; the whole list. Ten out of 759 (1.3%) institutions at least doubled their graduate enrollments to the point where they are now over 1,000 students.

What about at the undergraduate level?


Institution Name Fall ’16 Fall ’15 Fall ’14 Fall ’13
Arizona State University-Skysong 19190 14922 10119 6970
The University of Texas at Arlington 10478 8893 7992 4232
Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City 1855 1577 1629 379
Pasco-Hernando State College 1833 1626 1329 847
Florida Atlantic University 1769 1398 916 842
Northern State University 1595 914 759 505
University of North Carolina Wilmington 1404 1011 683 297
University of Iowa 1367 1219 994 557
University of Louisiana at Lafayette 1094 976 905 194
West Texas A & M University 1066 933 927 172
The University of Texas at El Paso 1004 884 738 200


Ooh, now we’re up to 11 out of 759 (1.4%) institutions. We should add the University of Florida to the table above as they went from 0 online undergrads to 2,240 in Fall 2016. That story has been covered fairly well.

My guess is that these numbers may even be high. It’s likely that some institutions changed the way they code online courses and/or students in their system. I’m not suggesting that this was done nefariously, but if it was done, I’m not suggesting it necessarily was NOT nefarious ((there are a LOT of distance ed. folks under a LOT of pressure to report enrollment gains)). But, if reporting was consistent and you are affiliated with one of the institutions above, congratulations, I guess.

Only 5 institutions nationally appear on both lists. Those are:

  • Arizona State University
  • The University of Texas
  • Florida Atlantic University
  • The University of Iowa
  • West Texas A&M University

It’s important to note that there are “high-flying” distance education institutions that are not on these lists. For example, the University of Maryland – University College now has over 30,000 undergraduates enrolled exclusively via distance education. But, they each had over 23,000 in 2012. They’ve been at this game a long time. Same with, say, the University of Central Florida and Penn State University. They’re each right around 8.000 undergraduates enrolled exclusively online, but they were over 5,000 as far back as Fall 2013. My interest is in finding those “fast followers;” institutions that have not been playing the game for a long time and that are now trying to “compete” with UMUC, UCF and PSU.

Part of my research agenda starting this summer is to figure out what’s in the water at these newly scaled up institutions. The Arizona State story is fairly well documented; the others less so. If you have any insights that may help me in my research, please let me know.

2 thoughts on “Distance education – pot of gold?”

  1. Do you have any sense yet how these numbers might differ if we included all the students that IPEDS misses (i.e. anyone who is not first time, full time)? Or do IPEDS numbers for online include all students and not just the FTFT ones?

  2. I know for many of the Cal State campuses the online benefit of access is that we have some evidence that offering online courses enables students to take more units and potentially graduate more quickly. (Complicated student lives make it difficult to match the student’s schedule to the institutions.) I just heard that in our most recent year we had 118,000 students take at least one online course – about 25% of our students. So I don’t know about a pot of gold, but the students are choosing to take online courses. Anecdotally, the seats for the online sections sell out fastest. We’re not increasing enrollment (we could enroll more students if we had the state funding) and we’re not making money but we’re following student demand. I can’t prove it but I believe that if we were not offering those online sections some of our students would go elsewhere to get those courses.

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