Rapid growth in online instruction could wane, study says

Growth in online instruction has stemmed from existing programs, not from new initiatives.

Enrollment in online college classes grew by more than 1 million students over the past year, and while a new study shows that more educators think online instruction is equivalent in quality to face-to-face classes, fiscal pressure and government regulations aimed at for-profit schools could curb the online-learning spike, the study says.

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.

The million-student increase marks “the largest ever year-to-year increase in the number of students studying online,” said Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group and an author of the research.

Enrollment in online college classes grew by 21 percent over the past year, and general college enrollment rose by 2 percent, according to the survey of 2,500 institutions with more than 5.6 million students. College enrollment increased by 1.2 percent in 2009.

Education leaders’ responses to the survey included good news for advocates of online instruction, who have argued that online instruction is as effective as traditional classroom lessons.

Sixty-six percent of all respondents said online college classes were “the same or superior” to face-to-face classes, up from 57 percent in 2003. Three in four respondents from public colleges and universities agreed that online college classes were equivalent to or better than a traditional education.

More campus decision makers than ever agree that online instruction is “critical to the long-term strategy” of their institution. Sixty-three percent said web-based classes were a central piece to their planning, marking a 14-percent jump since the survey was first taken in 2002.

Only 12 percent said online college classes were not an important part of their strategy, the lowest number since the survey began.

The Babson survey isn’t without its caveats, however. Accommodating a massive influx of students looking for online college 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,” Allen said. “While the sluggish economy continues to drive enrollment growth, large public institutions are feeling budget pressure and competition from the for-profit sector institutions.”

Impending federal regulations on for-profit colleges—which represent some of the country’s leading online programs—could hinder enrollment at institutions like the University of Phoenix, DeVry University, and Strayer University, according to the survey.

These rules—known as “gainful employment” rules—could make it more difficult for for-profit colleges to sign up students for online college classes, the Babson College study said.

The federal Education Department (ED) has pushed for stricter regulations on for-profit schools that take in billions in federal student aid every year. ED officials—along with many former students and employees—have accused for-profit schools of shady recruitment practices that burden students with loans they can’t afford to repay.

ED’s push for stronger for-profit regulations has provoked strong reactions from both sides of the issue, but the Babson study reports that an “overwhelming majority of academic leaders are neutral on whether these rules would result in a level playing field among higher-education institutions.”

Respondents from for-profit institutions were more than twice as likely as their nonprofit college counterparts to say ED’s coming regulations would have a negative impact on their campus.

Only one in 10 academic leaders said the debt-to-earnings ratio—measuring how much income a student will earn after graduation, compared with his or her student loan debt—“is a good measure of whether a school’s training leads to gainful employment.”

This argument was used repeatedly in public hearings on the “gainful employment” policy held at ED’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Nov. 4-5.

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

Almost all online enrollment growth over the past year has stemmed from existing web-based programs expanding their course offerings, and not from colleges and universities launching new online education programs, the report says.

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