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

Several online-only colleges have reported notable increases in enrollment among college students of more or less traditional ages—those between the ages of 18 and 24. That’s news. But it probably doesn’t mean what most people think it means.

The message is simple. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) online college grew from 135,000 students in March 2020 to 175,000 today. Western Governors University (WGU) reported an increase in traditional-age students from about 6,000 students in 2017 to 15,000 students in 2022. At the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), also fully online, enrollment plummeted 24 years from almost 4,300 students in 2017 to 5,700 students this year.

That’s great. It’s good when people educate themselves.

But it probably doesn’t mean, as some experts have claimed, 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, the surge in enrollments doesn’t represent a significant change in people’s thoughts about online colleges — and more often than not, those thoughts aren’t positive.

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

One is that measuring staff numbers at a few schools can seem significant, but when you look at the numbers as a proportion of college-age young people, the increase is almost invisible. A survey conducted this year found that “Before the pandemic, 0.28 percent of high school respondents surveyed said they planned to attend college entirely online. In 2022, that number has more than doubled to 0.72 percent.”

More than doubled. This is newsworthy. To less than three quarters of a percent. Call this shift what you will, but it is not a perceptual shift, at least not of any magnitude.

Look at it this way — national education statistics show that since the pandemic began in 2020, “total undergraduate enrollments have fallen by almost 1.4 million — or 9.4 percent.” Some of the reported new growth of younger students attending online schools occurred before the pandemic, but even if you count it all, these three schools — WGU, SNHU and UMGC — saw an increase in enrollment of about 50,000 students. That’s less than four percent of the 1.4 million students who have dropped out of higher education since 2020.

It’s good again. But we’re talking about – at most – 3.5% of that, with 80% of that increase coming from one school, SNHU.

But in an effort to sell the narrative that young people feel better with full online education, some have cited this Northeastern University study. In this narrative, and along with this increase in enrollment, it is reported that this study shows “almost three-quarters (71 percent) of employers view online credentials as equal to or better quality than those completed in person.”

But let me report on the same study this way—according to Northeastern University, nearly a third (31%) of C-suite executives last year said a skill earned online was “generally of lower quality than one earned in person is .”

In other words, a nice surge in college enrollment doesn’t mean the bottom of online programs is shifting. It’s still pretty bad.

Taking a step back, it’s easy to analyze what’s actually happening, what those gains are actually showing. Rather than depicting a change in perception, it is instead clear that some young people are taking small steps when entering or re-entering college.

Given the absolute chaos and horrific results so many of us have seen over the last two years – anyone ZoomU? – it’s hard to blame them. Now that some college students are starting to date again, it’s easy to see that they’re not quite ready to fully commit. It’s the college equivalent of the millions of people who realize the pandemic is “over” but still aren’t ready to eat out or travel. In college, which is a more important decision than dinner, it’s believable that some people just aren’t ready to go all the way just yet.

When things go wrong, when virus variants emerge or mask mandates reappear, college programs that are available entirely online are likely to be the least disrupted. They tend to be easier to start and easier to stop or pause. It’s a reasonable middle ground and a safe place to start, all things considered.

It’s also very likely a big factor that these online-only schools advertise heavily, heavily. Most traditional schools don’t – at least not with non-stop national television advertising. When people regret their decision to drop out of college or are a little more cautious than normal, the ads that emphasize the convenience of online learning are clearly a factor.

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

However, the stubborn fact is that most low-quality, for-profit schools are online only. And that spoils the entire supply — a condition that’s unlikely to change. Yes, some younger students are returning to school. And yes, some of that goes to online-only schools, but it’s a fraction of a fraction and almost certainly doesn’t represent a significant change in sentiment. Despite what you might hear.