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Number of Online Learners Continues to Grow, But Pace Slows

October 30, 2007

The number of students taking online college courses reached nearly 3.5 million this year, an increase of approximately 10 percent from 2005. This growth rate far exceeds the 1.3 percent growth of the overall higher education student population. Students taking at least one online course are now estimated to represent around 20 percent of all postsecondary education students, according to an annual report by the Sloan Consortium.

The report, entitled Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning, states that although the growth rate in online students is still rising, the10 percent increase this year is dwarfed by last year’s 37 percent rate of growth. The results suggest that the dramatic gains made in previous years may not be sustained.


Although approximately 70 percent of academic leaders believe that student demand for online learning is still growing, the report suggests that this growth will no longer be fueled by new institutions entering the online learning arena.  Future growth will most likely come from those institutions that are currently the most engaged in online learning and have the highest expectations for growth. In fact, 83 percent of institutions offering online courses expect their online enrollments to increase over the coming year.

Additional findings include the following:

  • Virtually all types of institutions of higher education have shown substantial growth in online enrollment. However, two-year associate’s institutions have the highest growth rates and account for more than half of all online enrollments for the last five years.

  • More than 86 percent of online students are undergraduates; however traditional baccalaureate colleges account for a very small percentage of the online undergraduate population.

  • All types of institutions cite improved student access as being the top reason why they offer online education at their institutions.  The second most cited reason was the ability to attract students from outside the institution’s traditional service area.

  • The most cited barrier to widespread adoption of online learning is that students need more discipline to succeed in online courses. This is followed by lack of acceptance by faculty of online instruction.

The full report can be downloaded at no charge from the Sloan Consortium’s Web site.  For more research on technology and distance education, visit the NACUBO Web site