Spike in online enrollment not surprising to many

Three-fourths of public colleges and universities believe online courses are "critical" for long-term success.
Three-fourths of public colleges believe online courses are "critical" for long-term success.

The 2009 Sloan-C report on online education confirmed what campus officials have seen during the country’s economic downturn: Americans are flocking to web-based classes.

The seventh annual study, based on responses from more than 2,500 colleges and universities and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, reported a 17-percent increase in online course enrollment, with more than one-fourth of U.S. college students taking at least one web-based class during the fall 2008 semester.

Three-fourths of campuses with online programs said demand increased over the past year, and two-thirds of colleges that don’t offer web courses said students had requested online learning.

Last year’s 17-percent jump trumped 2008’s 12-percent increase in online class enrollment. Overall, higher education enrollment increased by 1.2 percent last year, according to the report.

Online course enrollment “really is what’s driving the growth of higher education in the U.S.,” said Elaine Allen, research director at Babson College’s Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. Allen helped compile the Sloan-C report.

Sloan-C’s findings are indicative of the country’s swollen enrollment numbers during the economic recession. Community colleges and major universities alike have instituted enrollment caps in the past year while unemployed and underemployed adults look to supplement their resumes with a college degree.

Some schools, including Portland Community College, Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, and community colleges in Illinois, have launched weekend and late-night courses in response to unprecedented student populations.

And because many adults prefer the convenience of online classes, campus technology officials said the Sloan-C statistics were no surprise.

“The higher-ed mantra has been, ‘When the economy stinks, we do well,’” said Reynol Junco, an associate professor and technology researcher at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. “It’s easier for folks because there’s always been that flexibility with [online education].”

Allen said enrollment increases weren’t owing to out-of-work adults only, but also workers nervous about the country’s economic instability and their own job security.

“They go back to school to improve their credentials in case they’re going to get laid off,” she said.

Despite the massive gains in online enrollment in recent years, many faculty members remain skeptical of online education, according to the Sloan-C report. Only a third of chief academic officers surveyed in the report said their faculty “accept the value and legitimacy” of online learning, a number that has remained steady since 2002.

Junco said he was surprised the number of skeptical faculty wasn’t higher, because many professors prefer face-to-face interaction over web-based chats, lectures, and lessons.

“I’m well versed in tech and engagement, but I don’t want to teach online,” Junco said. “I enjoy being in front of people, and most faculty are not as tech-savvy as people who might be bigger proponents of online education. They sometimes don’t know the value of the online space.”