Coming of Age
Online Offerings Are Maturing Even as Community College Enrollment Dips
A glimpse at some of the statistics contained in the first-ever Digital Learning Compass report underscored an enrollment trend that has been perplexing community college leaders for several years.
Between 2012 and 2015, according to the report, full-time enrollment at two-year public institutions dipped by 9.5 percent, or nearly 690,000 students. As the economy has improved, community college enrollment has plunged, a trend has triggered budget cuts, reduced course offerings and resulted in layoffs at community colleges across the country.
The decline in community college enrollment, in fact, is almost entirely responsible for the overall reduction in undergraduate enrollments between 2012 and 2015. Undergraduate enrollment at fouryear public colleges was essentially flat during that time period, increasing by just 4,920 students out of a total enrollment of 10.7 million. Overall enrollment declined by about 662,000 students.
But while overall enrollments are dropping, distance enrollments are continuing an upward climb that has been under way for more than a decade. The number of college students taking at least one distance education course in 2015 now tops six million. That number is a 3.9 percent increase — or 226,375 students — recorded the previous two years. More than one in four students (29.7 percent) now take at least one distance education course (a total of 6,022,105 students), according to the Digital Compass report.
To put these figures in context, the proportion of students taking at least one online course for fall 2002 was under ten percent.
The study's findings highlight yet another year of consecutive growth in the number of students taking courses at a distance, said study co-author Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group. This study and earlier reports from the Babson Survey Research Group have shown that distance education growth has a momentum that has continued, even as overall higher education enrollments have been declining.
The report is the first in a series of publications from Digital Learning Compass, a new research partnership of the Babson Survey Research Group, e-Literate and WCET (the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Cooperative for Educational Technologies).
Among its findings was that distance education enrollments at community colleges are declining, but at a much slower rate than overall enrollment. Between 2012 and 2015, distance enrollments at community colleges declined by 11,462 students, or just 0.6 percent of total enrollment. In 2015, distance enrollments at community colleges totaled more than 1.8 million students, the report said.
Not all community colleges are experiencing distance enrollment declines, however. Some are seeing increases, particularly in areas that are experiencing rapid population growth. At Valencia College, in Florida, 17,216 students were enrolled in at least one distance education course in 2015, an increase of 3,231 since 2012. The Lone Star College System, based in Houston, enrolled 21,811 distance education students in 2015, some 3,209 students more than were enrolled in 2012. Overall enrollment is on the rise at both colleges.
Some prominent community colleges recorded significant decreases. Rio Salado College, which offers the majority of its courses in an online format, saw of reduction of 4,810 students between 2012 and 2015. Online enrollment at Northern Virginia Community College fell by 5,731 students during that time span, to 13,421 students.
Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana’s statewide college system, enrolled more distance education students than any other two-year college. In 2015, Ivy Tech enrolled 34,103 distance education students. That’s an impressive number, but it is 8,718 fewer students than were enrolled in distance education courses in 2012, the report said.
Kara Monroe, Ivy Tech’s vice president of academic affairs, innovation and support, said the numbers are not unexpected. Unlike some other colleges, Ivy Tech makes no effort to recruit students from outside the state of Indiana. Enrollment trends are mostly due to improving economic conditions in Indiana, she said.
“Our mission is to serve residents of the state of Indiana,” she said. “Ninety-six percent of our distance education students have an Indiana address. Unemployment here is low, and that impacts our enrollment.”
“Distance education is an important part of our overall strategy,” she said. “It allows students who otherwise would not be able to take a full load to take a full load. It allows people to fit education into their busy lives.”
The college is trying to expand its distance education reach so that higher education is more accessible to more state residents.
“What I am on the hunt for are additional distance education formats,” she said. “Is there a reason that we are not reaching particular groups of people? I think our growth will come in additional formats. We will be moving more courses into hybrid formats. There are probably some approaches we haven’t tried yet.”
The college is also trying to close the achievement gap between students enrolled in distance education and those who opt for face-to-face education on campus. It’s currently calculated at about three percent.
Valencia College is wrestling with the same dilemma. It also has an achievement gap between students who take courses online and those who take them on campus. The gap is about five percent. The college is in the midst of a top-to-bottom revamp of distance education offerings to figure out why.
A deep dive into distance education data revealed some of the trends the college is trying to address.
“What we found was the quality of our online courses was not uniform,” said Susan E. Ledlow, Valencia’s vice-president of academic affairs and planning.
“The faculty experience was not uniform. The student experience was not uniform. The outcomes weren’t uniform.”
Where the college found large gaps in particular courses, it stopped offering them altogether.
“Until we figured it out, we stopped offering those courses,” Ledlow said. Going forward, the college is carefully reviewing each proposed online course.
“When applying for a course, we’re asking ‘what is the rationale for the course being online?’” she said. “We can’t just put courses online. We need to make careful, rational decisions about what to offer online.”
Many new courses are likely to be offered in a hybrid format, said Wendi Dew, Valencia’s vice-president of teaching and learning. Data show that students enrolled in hybrid courses — studying online but supplementing that with oncampus exchanges — perform better than those who all their work online.
“They come in and have a rich experience,” she said.
At Lone Star College, about 10,500 students are enrolled in hybrid courses out of a total 27,700 students who take at least one course online, said Chancellor Stephen Head.
“The students do better,” he said. “Faculty like it too.”
Head has worked at the college for 33 years, much of that time developing and supervising the college’s distance education program. Distance education has come a long way over since 2004, when The Babson Survey Research Group began studying it, he said, and it continues to evolve. Lone Star now offers 12,000 online sections every year. About half are taught by full-time professors, and half by adjuncts. But that ratio could be changing.
“One of the things we are looking at are models for full-time distance education professors who never come to campus,” he said. “There are a lot of questions to answer. What is fair pay? Who do they report to? I think progressive community colleges need to look at alternative models.”
One of those might be offering workforce development courses, combining them with the hands-on experiences that are critical to such courses. Head is interested in working with business and industry to design such courses, which currently offer almost no content online.
“There is a lot of oil drilling going on in west Texas,” he said. “We already teach rig safety. A lot of it is hands-on. But some can be online. The question is how do you do that? We have more capacity than usage. But the bottom line is you have to give everyone access to education.”