Blip in Online College Enrollment Doesn’t Mean What You Think

Several fully online colleges have reported notable increases in enrollment among students of more or less traditional age – those between 18 and 24 years old. It’s a short story. But that probably doesn’t mean what most people think it means.

The news is easy. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) online college has grown from 135,000 students in March 2020 to 175,000 today. Western Governors University (WGU) reported an increase in the number of traditional-aged students, from approximately 6,000 students in 2017 to 15,000 students in 2022. At the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), also entirely in online, reported enrollment of under-24s rose from nearly 4,300 students in 2017 to 5,700 students this year.

It’s awesome. It’s good when people continue their studies.

But that probably doesn’t mean, as some experts have proposed, that young people have changed their minds about online education and now see it as a suitable substitute for attending a traditional on-campus college or university. In other words, rising enrollment doesn’t represent a significant shift in how people think about online colleges — and more often than not, those thoughts aren’t positive.

There are several reasons why the surge in enrollment probably doesn’t mean that people’s impressions of online schools have changed.

The first is that measuring enrollment in a few schools might seem like a big deal, but when you look at the numbers as a share of college-aged youth, the increase is almost invisible. A survey published this year showed that “before the pandemic, 0.28% of secondary school respondents said they planned to attend university entirely online. By 2022, that figure has more than doubled to 0.72%.”

More than doubled. It is worthy of interest. Less than three quarters of one percent. Call this change what you will, but it’s not a change in perception, at least not of any magnitude.

Look at it this way – national education statistics show that since the start of the pandemic in 2020, “total undergraduate enrollment has fallen by almost 1.4 million – or 9.4% “. Some of the reported new growth in the number of younger students attending online schools took place before the pandemic, but even if you count everything, these three schools – WGU, SNHU and UMGC have seen increases in enrollments of about 50,000 students. That’s less than 4% of the 1.4 million undergraduates who have withdrawn from higher education since 2020.

Again, it’s good. But we are talking – at most – of 3.5% of this, of which 80% of this increase comes from a single school, the SNHU.

But in an effort to sell the narrative that young people feel better about teaching entirely online, some have cited this study from Northeastern University. In this narrative and alongside this increase in enrollment, this study is reported as showing “that almost three-quarters (71%) of employers perceive online study credentials as equivalent or better than those obtained in person.”

But let me report the same study this way – according to Northeastern University, as of last year, almost a third (31%) of senior executives said a degree earned online was “generally of high quality. less than those obtained in person.”

In other words, seeing a nice surge in college enrollment doesn’t mean the underlying terrain for online programs is changing. It’s still pretty bad.

By stepping back, it’s easy to analyze what’s really going on, what these gains really show. Rather than representing a change in perception, it is rather clear that some young people are taking ginger baby steps as they enter or re-enter college.

Given the utter chaos and terrible results many of us have seen over the past two years – ZoomU anyone? – it is difficult to blame them. Now that some college students are starting to date again, it’s easy to see that they aren’t quite ready to fully commit just yet. It’s the college equivalent of the millions of people acknowledging the pandemic is “over,” but still aren’t quite ready to eat out or travel. In college, which is a bigger decision than dinner, some people are likely not quite ready to go through with it yet.

If things go wrong, virus variants appear, or hidden terms reappear, fully online college programs are likely to be the least disrupted. They tend to be easier to start and easier to stop or pause. It’s reasonable middle ground and a safe place to start, all things considered.

It is also most likely an important factor that these online-only schools advertise a lot. Most traditional schools don’t – at least not with non-stop national television commercials. If people regret their decision to quit college or are a little more cautious than normal, ads that emphasize the convenience of online learning are clearly a factor.

It is true that some online-only schools invest in quality. WGU does, for example. Speaking of which, their competency model is an entirely different approach than most schools and probably shouldn’t be counted alongside SNHU and others.

The lingering fact though is that most for-profit subprime schools are online only. And that taints the entire offer – a condition that is unlikely to change. Yes, some younger students are returning to school. And, yes, some of them go to online-only schools, but that’s a fraction of a fraction and almost certainly isn’t a significant shift in sentiment. Despite what you may hear.

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