By Frank Healy for Career College Central

Since 2002, the availability of online degrees has reshaped the education sector, and today’s students have new expectations of their institutions of higher education. Online degrees combine the diversity of a unique learning experience with the convenience of being able to study anywhere and at any time. Eager to provide students with these benefits, colleges and universities have been continually adding more online programs in different fields every year.

But while online programs saw continual growth for a number of years as more students eschewed the traditional classroom setting for more flexible options, during the past year these programs seem to have lost some of the momentum they had built up during the past decade.

According to the 2013 Survey of Online Learning report, 7.1 million students took at least one online course, which is a significant increase from the approximately 5.5 million reported in the initial survey in 2002. But the report also shows only a 6.1 percent increase in online degree program enrollment between 2012 and 2013, the lowest increase in a decade.

Reading the data

With more than 400 clients in the higher education sector nationwide, Higher Ed Growth is a leader in postsecondary education and a major generator of enrollment inquiries. Higher Ed Growth’s data corresponds with national enrollment trends, and we too found a sizable decline in enrollment in online courses during the past two years, correlating with the findings of the Survey of Online Learning report.

Our data revealed that in 2012, 49 percent of all students were enrolled in on-campus degree programs, while 51 percent were enrolled in online degree programs. Within a year, this distribution shifted to 59 percent of students being enrolled in on-campus degree programs versus 41 percent being enrolled in online degree programs in 2013.

This nearly 10 percent shift in program types suggests a major change in students’ decision-making processes. So, why exactly are students drifting away from the online model to an in-person setting?

Changing to meet market demands

One possible reason for this shift is a change in the types of degrees that students want. For example, Higher Ed Growth’s data shows that health care and medical degree enrollments are on the rise. Enrollments for these programs have grown more than 15 percent since 2011, with medical assisting programs largely driving this trend. Nursing also rebounded in 2013 after a small decrease the year before. The very nature and structure of these programs requires students to partake in a more hands-on learning environment to gain a thorough understanding of the subject.

We are also seeing from our data that students are trending away from business degrees, a popular choice with online learners. These types of programs have seen a sharp decline of 10 percent since 2011.

In addition, there is always a correlation between higher education interests and job market demand. As students consider future career paths when enrolling in a college or university, they tend to pursue the degree type and learning environment that will best prepare them for the job market. Right now, the health care industry is seeing increased growth and momentum, and as a result there is a large interest in health-related degrees and a corresponding increase in traditional enrollments.

Meeting student needs

So, what does the future hold for online degree programs? Colleges and universities are likely to continue adapting their online degree programs to better meet the ever-changing needs of their students and to ensure that they remain competitive with traditional programs. For example, many institutions are augmenting their online programs to include more reputable materials in order to increase credibility and to emphasize that they are comparable in quality to a traditional classroom setting.

Schools may also look for more ways to bridge the gap between online and traditional coursework. Many schools have already adapted to fit this model by having lectures and coursework taking place online, but labs and demonstrations occurring in a classroom setting. This offers all the hands-on experience of the in-person model with the convenience of an online course.

Although the numbers indicate that online degree programs may be on the decline among current students, it is still too early to count online programs out of the running for the foreseeable future. Online degree programs provide the flexibility that busy students need. By continuing to provide courses that are easily adaptable to a changing audience, online degree programs are certain to always have their place in the higher education sector.

 

Career College Central September 2014 PDF Link: http://careercollegecentral.com/pdf/1405-CCC-Sept-2014.pdf

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