Dianne Hayes 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Today’s tough economy has more people not only choosing college as a viable option, but also seeking to study online. Sixty-six percent of institutions surveyed cite an increased demand for new online courses and programs and 73 percent see more demand for existing online courses and programs, according to “Learning on Demand: Online Education in the U.S. 2009,” an annual survey by the Sloan Consortium, which tracks online learning trends. Released in January, the survey captured the responses of more than 2,500 colleges and universities. Undergraduate students overwhelmingly are driving the demand for online education, according to the survey. In fall 2008, there were 4.6 million online students, a 17 percent increase from the year before. The long-term growth from fall 2002 to fall 2008 is even more signifi - cant. In fall 2002, there were only 1.6 million students taking at least one online course. While the overall higher education student body grew at an annual rate of around 1.5 percent during this period, the increase in online students represents a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent. “The Sloan numbers provide a good idea of what’s going on in undergraduate education,” says Dr. Janet K. Poley, president and CEO of the American Distance Education Consortium, a nonprofi t organization composed of approximately 65 state universities and land-grant colleges. “My sense is that the demand will continue to go up. I don’t think we will ever see purely face-to-face instruction only.” Basic math helps explain some of the interest in online courses. High fuel costs, high unemployment rates, scheduling fl exibility, and easy accessibility are driving factors as students, workers, and the unemployed all seek ways to make themselves more marketable. “More people have to work and go to school with varying time pressures,” says Poley. “The economy is driving the trend because people need to work. Lots of people are retooling their skills and are not in the position to come to campus.” According to the U.S. Labor Department, the jobless rate was 9.7 percent in January. As the economic challenges worsen, public universities are seeing more people knocking at their virtual doors in search of online classes. Nearly all of the chief academic offi cers at public institutions participating in the Sloan survey – 87 percent – reported that the economic downturn has increased demand for their existing online courses and programs. Additionally, according to the Sloan report, public institutions are by far most likely to believe that online education is key to their long-term strategy. It’s what brought Arizona State University, an academic powerhouse with 68,000 students, online. Tamara Popovich, assistant director of Academic Services at ASU Online, says ASU’s entree into online course offerings is driven by a strategic plan to remain competitive. “The private sector online serves a niche, but we think we can get some of their students. We weren’t previously meeting that need of being fl exible and being online. Now we are,” says Popovich. A relative newcomer to online course offering, ASU began offering courses a few years ago; the bulk of its online programs went live just last year. While only 3,000 ASU students are currently taking classes online, Popovich expects that number to increase based on ASU’s targeted programs. “There is one program we started as a way to encourage former ASU students who never graduated to fi nish. It’s an easy way for people who are working and have already earned a lot of credits.” Such large institutions represent only 6 percent of all institutions with online enrollments. Requests are growing for smaller institutions to increase their offerings as well. Nearly 300 institutions that lack online course offerings reported increased student demand that they begin such offerings, according to the Sloan survey. Institutions also are fi nding that increased demand for online courses come with fi nancial burdens. Virtually all institutions report more demand for fi nancial aid. At the same time, about one-half say that the size of the institutional budget has decreased as a result of the economic downturn. Public institutions,in particular, have been hit with budget decreases, along with new demands for course offerings and increased application for fi nancial assistance. But the playing fi eld is uneven, with a majority of the private institutions, however, reporting an increase in their budget. As online courses grow in popularity, universities are adapting. Ruben Britt, assistant director of the Career and Academic Planning Center at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., says the steady rise he’s seen in online enrollment comes not just from Rowan’s 12,000 students. “We are a hub in South Jersey. Along with our students taking the courses, there are three community colleges within 30 minutes of us that we have agreements with. These students are also taking advantage of what we have to offer online.” Post University in Waterbury, Conn., where enrollment has grown annually is reported to have the greatest increase in students statewide. According to university representative Kelly Statmore, new student enrollment for online courses has grown by 111 percent from last year. Much of that growth is attributed to the university’s new online master’s degree program in business administration. The online MBA program is “the fi rst fully online program in Connecticut,” says Statmore. Post offers an “online accelerated degree program” that has also become popular. The online program has grown from 100 students in 2004 to nearly 5,000 today. As university leaders and supporters of higher education recognize the full infl uence of online education, institutions will have to become more strategic about future plans for online education, Poley says. “I think we will continue to make better use of the technology,” Poley says. “Almost all institutions with the exception of small, private and more liberal arts oriented schools — almost all regardless of size — will be trying to deal with some online course offerings and certainly community colleges will be doing more. Whether large or small, it’s something everybody is trying to grapple with it.”
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