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Online College Enrollment is Still Growing – Here’s Why

For over a decade, people hyping new developments in Education Technology were telling us that the era of big online classes was here. They were always wrong.  

Then Covid-19 closed colleges across the country, and the percentage of students in online classes soared. No surprise: for most people, online classes were the only classes available. But many students also opted out of college altogether, and total enrollment dropped. 

Now as we enter 2023, students have access to the full range of options they had before – and more. Traditional, in-person, classes have re-opened across the country while many colleges now have much more robust online offerings than they had prior to the pandemic. 

What does this mean for online education? Is it still growing? Do students like it more now than they did then?

The Chronicle of Higher Education crunched the newest numbers, and found that the answer is “yes, sort of.”

The percentage of students enrolled only in online education has dropped since in-person classes returned, but it’s still twice as high as it was before the pandemic: in 2017, only 15.7% of students were enrolled exclusively in online programs: now it’s 30.4%. 

And while online education still represents a relatively small portion of total college enrollment, it has continued to grow in absolute numbers. At a time when college enrollment as a whole is still dropping, and many institutions are treading water, undergraduate enrollment at online colleges is up 3.2% from last year.

Online Education is For People Who Want It

This fits two patterns that we’ve seen before. The first, which we observed as far back as 2020, is that there is a substantial number of students for whom online education is actually their first choice: it’s not something they do as a substitute for a traditional college education, it’s the kind of college education that they specifically want.

Sometimes that’s because they prefer the opportunity to study at home or outside of a traditional classroom environment. Sometimes it’s because online college is so much more accessible: it fits with their lives, their work schedules, and their family obligations. Students cite a variety of reasons why online college is their first choice.

And as students have more opportunities to have the college experience they want, they’re sorting themselves accordingly. The percentage of students who said they preferred online learning back in 2020 was about 30%, and the percentage of students who are now enrolled exclusively in online classes is … about 30%. 

We suspect that this represents a floor, not a ceiling. Because enrollment in online programs is growing in absolute terms while enrollment in traditional colleges is struggling, the proportion of students who are exclusively in online classes will grow again. What’s important to note is that students will also increasingly distinguish between different kinds of online learning, because “online learning” is not just one thing

Online education has to be designed for specific populations, the same way traditional classrooms do. This means that different kinds of online education are as distinct as the differences between online learning and traditional classrooms. Different student populations have different needs and wants, and the more online education develops to serve different populations, the more people will enroll in it.

Practical Colleges Are The Ones That Are Growing

The other trend we see is that the colleges that have been experiencing growth through 2022 and into 2023 are the ones that are the most practical: the most easily accessed, the most cost effective, and the most career-focused options. As a result: Online education is up and so is community college enrollment. 

Calbright College is at the center of these trends: a free, online-only, community college that focuses exclusively on helping people improve their careers in less than a year. Our enrollment has tripled since the pandemic started, and the rate of the increase has grown, too, even as traditional colleges have reopened. 

To us, this is a clear confirmation that people want to go to college, they want to improve their careers, but they are looking for the right fit. They are looking for a college that is accessible, affordable, and focused on their specificneeds. 

The more online programs can provide that, the more they’ll grow.

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