Has the number of online programs been exaggerated?

Major discrepancy may exist because of the ‘overly ambiguous and broad’ definition of “online”

online-programs-learningColleges and universities may be drastically over-reporting the number of online programs at their institutions, a new report concluded.

The report, released by ApprovedColleges.com, said that the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) lists far more programs than what actually exists. While IPEDS, which relies on self-reported surveys, lists 3,311 schools offering online programs, ApprovedColleges only found 1,243.

So, if true, why the discrepancy?

“We found two major reasons why the IPEDS database seemingly overinflates the number of schools offering online programs,” the report’s authors wrote. “One, the database includes every location that a school might have listed as a separate entity. Two, the term ‘online’ is overly ambiguous and broad.”

For example, the study said, five for-profit colleges are actually listed as more than 280 campuses. Many colleges also listed courses that aren’t worth any credit as online offerings. ApprovedColleges only counted programs that result in diplomas, certificates, and degrees.

The researchers collected that data by visiting every college and university website and cataloging what online programs they listed. The process has taken 18 months, and 10 percent of the task still remains, though Approved Colleges doesn’t expect the the results to change too much when the additional programs are accounted.

The report will be continually updated, the authors wrote, as Approved Colleges creates its own “living database.”

(Next page: States with the most programs)

Altogether, the 1,243 institutions offer nearly 17,400 online programs. Twenty-nine percent are master’s degree programs. Bachelor’s and certificate programs are evenly matched at 23 percent each. Nearly 30 percent are business and management programs. Science and math programs accounted for 6 percent of the programs.

“This appears to be a natural reflection of the United States migration away from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) over the last 35 years,” the authors wrote. “It is possible that with the current focus on STEM at the secondary level we will see a higher percent of programs offered in this area by the 2030s.”

The study found that the state with greatest number of online programs is California, with 1,277 programs. Not surprising given the state’s size, the authors wrote. More surprising, they said, was the high number in states like Virginia and Minnesota.

Minnesota, a state with population just 13 percent the size of California’s, has 1,100 programs, the report said.

“Minnesota’s high ranking benefts from having two powerhouses in online education, Walden University and Capella University, based in the state,” the authors wrote.

Nevada and Delaware have the smallest number of programs, with just 23 and 15, respectively.

A recent IPEDS analysis by the WICHE Cooperative of Educational Technologies further broke down online programs in each state. That analysis would indicate that states that Approved Colleges says have the highest number of programs are not always the states with the highest level of participation in distance learning.

Those states, according to WCET, are Arizona, West Virginia, and Iowa — all with student participation rates at forty percent or higher.

Follow Jake New on Twitter @eCN_Jake.

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