California-based Bridgepoint Education, which runs the for-profit Ashford University and University of the Rockies, reported a 40-percent jump in online enrollment from 2009 to 2010. The massive increase, however, pales in comparison to the 100-percent enrollment spike Bridgepoint experienced from 2008 to 2009.

Included in the fastest growing online schools was Liberty University, a small private campus in Lynchburg, Va., where the online student population grew by 24 percent last year after growing just 15 percent in 2009—a small increase among universities included in the Ambient Insight research.

Ambient Insight’s projections are much brighter for educational technology advocates than a report released in November that said fiscal pressure and government regulations aimed at for-profit schools could curb the meteoric growth in online learning.

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As it did in 2009, Babson College’s annual survey of online education in the U.S. showed that more Americans are turning to flexible online college courses during tough economic times, when college enrollment typically rises.

However, accommodating a massive influx of students looking for online classes could prove untenable for many publicly funded schools that project more budget cuts in the coming years, Babson researchers said.

“There may be some clouds on the horizon,” said Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “While the sluggish economy continues to drive enrollment growth, large public institutions are feeling budget pressure and competition from the for-profit sector institutions.”

Although “there is no compelling evidence that the continued robust growth in online enrollments is at its end,” the Babson study concluded that the way online instruction has grown could mean the enrollment momentum soon could slow.

Impending federal regulations on for-profit colleges—known as “gainful employment” regulations—could hinder enrollment at some of the most popular online colleges, according to Babson researchers.


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