Online college enrollment growth overtakes real world institutions

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Online higher education institutions continue to see their enrollment increase during the coronavirus pandemic, increasing 2.2% in spring 2021, the National Student Clearinghouse said on Thursday, with part-time students fueling the increase.

Full-time online school enrollment increased by less than a percentage point this spring, but part-time enrollment increased 5.1%. Older students, between 21 and 24, were also behind the growth, with a 7.1% increase in their enrollment.

By comparison, undergraduate enrollment overall fell 5.9% for the spring, the largest drop since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the clearinghouse. Much of the decline was recorded by two-year establishments, which saw their enrollments drop 11%. Graduate enrollments, however, are up overall, jumping 4.4% from a year ago.

The growth of all graduate programs is focused on master’s certificate programs – short-term courses focused on specific skills – where enrollment is up 10%, and master’s degrees, which saw a 5.2% increase in registrations.

Graduate enrollment at predominantly online institutions increased 27.2% year over year for those aged 21 to 24. The data did not disaggregate the type of programs for graduate certificates versus full master’s degrees.

The report also did not include data on undergraduate certificates or micro-degrees of the workforce, which colleges are exploring as solutions for those looking for the skills needed to land a full-time job but who might not have the time or resources to complete a full degree.

Enrollment among students pursuing technology degrees has also increased. The number of students pursuing majors in computer science or information science increased by 3.4% in the spring semester of 2021, while master’s enrollments in these subjects increased by 7.8%. This was slower, however, than in the spring of 2020, when the annual growth of these programs was 4.1% for undergraduates and 8.3% for master’s students.

Meanwhile, science and engineering enrollments fell 1.4% for undergraduate degrees, but rose 3.3% for graduate students.

Undergraduate enrollment in social sciences and visual performing arts both decline 4.3% and 4.8% respectively, while undergraduate liberal arts enrollment fell 6.6% . But undergraduate enrollment in health fields, which was down in the spring of 2020, has reversed that trend and has increased slightly this year.

About 76% of all institutions submitted data to the National Student Clearinghouse for this report, which reflects registrations as of March 25. The group says it will release another listing report later this spring, reflecting data through June. That data reflects 12.6 million students, according to the clearinghouse.

Colleges and universities were facing a drop in enrollment before the pandemic, and the National Student Clearinghouse implemented the “Stay Informed” report to track the effects the coronavirus pandemic could have on the trend. In addition to capitalizing on the interest in non-traditional degrees, institutions seek to retain the students they already have by meeting basic needs and increasing engagement.

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