Making the Grade Cover Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006


Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006 is based on data collected for the fourth annual national report on the state of online education in U.S. higher education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the College Board, the report, based on responses from over 2,200 colleges and universities, examines the nature and extent of online learning among U.S. higher education institutions.

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Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006 represents the fourth annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. This year’s study, like those for the previous three years, is aimed at answering some of the fundamental questions about the nature and extent of online education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the College Board, the report, based on responses from over 2,200 colleges and universities, examines a number of key questions:

Has the Growth of Online Enrollments Begun to Plateau?

Background: For the past several years, online enrollments have been growing substantially faster than the overall higher education student body. However, last year’s study, while reporting the same numeric increase as the previous year, had a lower percentage growth rate. Could this be an early indicator that online enrollment growth has finally begun to plateau?
The evidence: There has been no leveling of the growth rate of online enrollments; institutions of higher education report record online enrollment growth on both a numeric and a percentage basis.

  • Nearly 3.2 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2005 term, a substantial increase over the 2.3 million reported the previous year.
  • The more than 800,000 additional online students is more than twice the number added in any previous year.

Who is Learning Online?

Background: There is some evidence that online education appeals to a different type of student from those who do face-to-face instruction. Online students tend to be older, and often hold additional employment and family responsibilities, as compared to the more traditional student. Do these differences mean that online students are taking different level courses or studying at different types of institutions?
The evidence: The population of online students is a close match to the general higher education student body, but the mix of schools at which they study is not.

  • Online students, like the overall student body, are overwhelmingly undergraduates. The proportion of graduate-level students is slightly higher in online education relative to the overall higher education population.
  • Online students, especially undergraduates, are more likely to be studying at Associates institutions than are their face-to-face contemporaries.

What Types of Institutions Have Online Offerings?

Background: The previous three reports in this series have shown a very uneven distribution of online course and program offerings by type of institution. Public institutions and the largest institutions of all types have consistently been at the forefront of online offerings. Those that are the least likely to offer online courses, and typically have the most negative opinions about online education in general, have been the small, private, four-year institutions.
The evidence: This year’s results show no major changes from previous patterns. The same types of institutions are in the forefront of online offerings.

  • More than 96 percent of the very largest institutions (more than 15,000 total enrollments) have some online offerings, which is more than double the rate observed for the smallest institutions.
  • The proportion of institutions with fully online programs rises steadily as institutional size increases, and about two-thirds of the very largest institutions have fully online programs, compared to only about one-sixth of the smallest institutions.
  • Doctoral/Research institutions have the greatest penetration of offering online programs as well as the highest overall rate (more than 80%) of having some form of online offering (either courses or full programs).

Have Perceptions of Quality Changed for Online Offerings?

Background: The first study in this series found that a majority of Chief Academic Officers rated the learning outcomes for online education “as good as or better” than those for face-to-face instruction. The following year’s report displayed similar results. Do academic leaders hold the same opinion today, given the rapid growth in the numbers of online students?
The evidence: By an increasing margin, most Chief Academic Officers believe that the quality of online instruction is equal to or superior to that of face-to-face learning.

  • In 2003, 57 percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face. That number is now 62 percent, a small but noteworthy increase.
  • The proportion who believe that online learning outcomes are superior to those for face-to-face is still relatively small but has grown by 40 percent since 2003 from 12.1 percent in 2003 to 16.9 percent.

What are the Barriers to Widespread Adoption of Online Education?

Background: Previous studies in this series have identified a number of areas of concern for the potential growth of online offerings and enrollments. Academic leaders have commented that their faculty often don’t accept the value of online learning and that it takes more time and effort to teach an online course. To what extent do these leaders see these issues and others as critical barriers to the widespread adoption of online learning?
The evidence: Problem areas identified in previous years are still seen as areas of concern among academic leaders.

  • Only 4.6 percent of Chief Academic Officers agreed that there are no significant barriers to widespread adoption of online learning.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the academic leaders cite the need for more discipline on the part of online students as a critical barrier.
  • Faculty issues, both acceptance of online and the need for greater time and effort to teach online, are also important barriers.
  • Neither a perceived lack of demand on the part of potential students nor the acceptance of an online degree by potential employers was seen as a critical barrier.