By Brian Fleming, Senior Analyst
The business of tracking online education enrollment trends has never been easy. For years, Eduventures and a very small number of others, including Sloan-C/Babson Survey Research Group, have provided informed “estimates” into how big the online market has become to date and what this means for the future of higher education. If there is any takeaway from our work to date, it is simply this: “the online market is really big, it’s growing year to year, it’s changing higher education.” This should not come as much of surprise.
What is the subject of some debate, however, is how big, which has come up more recently following the release of the long-awaited federal enrollment figures on distance education. Learning this data had finally been released, Eduventures began aligning our estimates with this now robust and, we would argue, important new data set, which for all its limitations is still the cornerstone of research and any serious policy discussion about the future of higher education. You can read about our most recent estimates which we released earlier this week.
Our take is that the online market should be understood as both the whole of students learning online in some way, which we estimate at about 5.35 million, and students pursuing formal “online education” (80% or more of study fully online), which we estimate at just over 3 million for 2012-2013. We have said this all along and can now affirm with much greater confidence that 25% of all students across all of higher education are learning online.
Surprisingly silent in all this has been Sloan/Babson, which this week released its latest installment in a long line of landmark reports on online learning, Grade Change. While this report offers compelling insight (as expected), especially on MOOCs which pushed it to the 2nd most popular piece on the Chronicle of Higher Education as of today, still muted is the report’s claim that the number of students learning online has now exceeded 7 million. That’s a big number. Too big, in fact.
Eduventures was one of the first to make note of this on this blog, and attention has now slowly crept more gradually into the conversation. Steve Kolowich picked this up yesterday on the Chronicle’s Wired Campus, which includes brief recognition from one of the report’s authors that their figures are likely much higher than actual and clearly not aligned with the new IPEDS reporting structure. Michael Feldstein, blogger for eLiterate, has also taken notice with a series of substantive challenges to the 7 million.
While the authors of this report should as usual be congratulated once more for a monumental piece of research, we challenge the 7 million learning online claim with a more conservative estimate of just over 5 million based on reasonable cuts from the “entirely distance” and “some distance” categories (remember, “distance” in IPEDS does not equal “online”). This year’s Online Higher Education Market Update will highlight this and take into account the implications of this these figures in our overall market projections and 2020 forecast, which also includes insight into our ongoing estimate that the “online market” (defined as 80% or more of study pursued online) is just at 3 million in total enrollment headcount.
We hope our figures can inform the narrative this year about the relative size of the distance and online learning markets, and along with Sloan-Babson continue to inform the industry of online’s profound impact.
Online learning is the new normal for higher education. It’s big. It’s growing. It’s massively influential.
It’s just yet to reach the 7 million mark.