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Of the 5.8 million students enrolled in DE courses in fall 2014, 4.8 million* (83%) were undergraduates, 968,000* (17%) were graduate students, and 326,000* (6%) were non-degree/certificate seeking students. Over the past two years graduate student enrollment has increased 10%, compared to 8% for non-degree and 6% for undergraduates. The next few sections analyze the institutional characteristics to locate areas of DE growth.

Institutional Size

All institutional sizes from under 1,000 to 20,000 and above saw positive gains in DE enrollments. The largest gains came from institutions categorized as under 1,000 that had total DE enrollment increases of 11% in 2013 and 6% in 2014. The only other double digit increase came from institutions categorized as 10,000 - 19,999 with a 14% increase in graduate enrollments in fall 2014.

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Institutional Sector

As noted earlier, only 4-year non-profit private and public institutions saw an increase in overall enrollment compared to other sector categories in fall 2014. In DE enrollment this trend continues but there are only two sectors where enrollments have declined: Public 2-year (-2%) and Private for-profit, 4-year or above (-3%). Even with these changes, private for-profit institutions only comprise 17% of all DE enrollments while public institutions comprise 67%.

Degree Level Awarded

Institutions can also identify themselves in IPEDS based on the highest degree awarded at their respective institution.  Current data in this report reflects that 4-year institutions are growing while others are slowing or decreasing. We can glean additional information from the IPEDS data by also evaluating what the highest degree awarded category for the various institutional sectors. Associate degree institutions have declining DE enrollments (-3%) while Bachelor's (5%), Master's (2%) and Doctoral (9%) degree institutions are all increasing. These three degree level categories also comprise 64% of all DE enrollments.

Association of American Universities

AAU members, while comprising eight percent of all enrollments, saw major DE enrollment increases in fall 2013 and 2014 when compared to all non-AAU members. AAU members over the past three years have increased their total DE enrollments by 27%; 25% in undergraduate students and 31% in graduate students. While it is too early to discern a trend, it is clear that the AAU members are becoming more involved in DE.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU)

There are 99 HBCUs identified in the fall 2014 IPEDS data set and they comprise 1% of all degree granting institution enrollments both overall and in DE. In fall 2014, HBCUs saw an increase of 13% in DE enrollment, with an increase of 14% in undergraduate students and an increase of 9% in graduate students.


The 2015 Online Report Card clearly reflects that enrollments in distance education are growing while overall enrollments at degree granting institutions are declining.  Where that growth is occurring is what this report has reflected on.  This report has taken into account both overall enrollment growth and growth in DE. 

  • Public 4-year and Private not-for-profit 4-year have had positive gains overall and in DE
  • Institutions greater than 20,000 students have had positive gains overall and in DE
  • Bachelor's degree and Doctoral degree granting institutions have had positive gains overall and in DE
  • Member institutions of the AAU have had positive gains overall and in DE


IPEDS Definitions

  • Distance education course - A course in which the instructional content is delivered exclusively via distance education.  Requirements for coming to campus for orientation, testing, or academic support services do not exclude a course from being classified as distance education. 
  • Distance education - Education that uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor synchronously or asynchronously.
  • Technologies used for instruction may include the following: Internet; one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcasts, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite or wireless communication devices; audio conferencing; and video cassette, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, if the cassette, DVDs, and CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with the technologies listed above.

*Actual DE enrollment numbers for fall 2014 are as follows: undergraduate - 4,862,519; graduate - 967,697; and non-degree/certificate seeking - 325,877.

Further analysis of the IPEDS data across five institutional characteristics and one external characteristic sheds some light on where the declines are occurring. These analyses were conducted for the whole population of degree granting institutions and are only subdivided by the characteristics associated to each institution in the data set. The only exception is for one data point, an identifier for the Association of American Universities (AAU), which was added and is not categorized in IPEDS.

Institution Size

There are five categories that comprise institutional size: a) Under 1,000, b) 1,000 - 4,999, c) 5,000 - 9,999, d) 10,000 - 19,999, and e) 20,000 and above. All of these categories, except 20,000 and above, saw a decrease in 'all students' enrollments. An increase in non-degree/certificate-seeking students was achieved by all institution sizes, except 10,000 - 19,999, which only had an increase in graduate students.

In February 2016, Babson Survey Research Group and WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies released the 2015 Online Report Card summarizing the status of online education in the United States. The report highlights, among other points, that distance education (DE) continues to increase at degree granting institutions despite a decline in overall enrollments. The 2015 Online Report Card utilizes, in addition to Babson's annual survey of online education, data from the National Center for Educational Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for fall 2012, 2013, and 2014.  IPEDS began to require the reporting of DE enrollment from participating institutions in the fall of 2012 and through this short history of data collection valuable information has been gleaned about DE enrollments as it relates to institutional characteristics: such as size, location, sector and institutional level. We recognize the value of the 2015 Online Report Card and encourage you to read it in addition to the data that is being shared here. The remaining sections of this report is our analysis of the IPEDS data over the past three years; fall 2012, 2014, and 2014.  

Declining Overall Enrollments

Overall enrollments at degree granting institutions has been declining since 2012 with undergraduate enrollments taking the largest dip, declining from 17.9 million students in 2012 to 17.5 million students in 2014. While graduate enrollments are not as large, these enrollments have increased slightly from 2.95 million in 2012 to 2.96 million in 2014. The 2015 Online Report Card also included non-degree/certificate seeking students in their data analysis but they only comprise eight percent of all enrollments. This group, however, is the only group with positive gains over the past three years increasing from 1.61 million students in 2012 to 1.66 million in 2014.

Institution Sector

There are six categories in IPEDS that comprise institution sector: 1) Public, 2-year, 2) Public, 4 year or above, 3) Private not-for-profit, 2-year, 4) Private not-for-profit, 4-year, 5) Private for-profit, 2-year, and 6) Private for-profit, 4-year or above.  The public, 4-year and private not-for-profit, 4-year are the only two institution sectors that had increases in overall enrollments in fall 2013 (.37% and 1.27% respectively) and 2014 (.1.65% and .35% respectively).  Two-year institutions, whether public, private not-for-profit or private for-profit saw declines in fall 2013 and 2014.  The largest decline from 2013 to 2014 was with the private for-profit 2-year institutions with a decline 7.22%, followed by private for-profit 4-year with a 5.71% decline and the private not-for-profit 2-year and public 2-year with declines of 3.91% and 3.56% respectively.

IPEDS – Fall 2014 Distance Education Analysis

Association of American Universities (AAU)

There are 60 public and private institutions in the United States that comprise the AAU. A full list of AAU institutions can be found here. This category of institution was added as they comprise 8% of all enrollments at degree granting institutions. While that number may be small it should be noted that private for-profits, both 2-year and 4-year, also comprise 8% of all enrollments at degree granting institutions. In overall enrollments from fall 2013 to 2014, AAU members, as a whole, saw positive increases (1.71%) compared to all other institutions which decreased 1.08%. Only the main campus for AAU institutions were utilized in this comparison.

Increasing Distance Education Enrollments

If overall enrollment at degree granting institutions is in decline, how is it possible to have increases in DE enrollment?  Unfortunately, that question cannot be answered with IPEDS data alone but one would have to speculate that institutions are providing more opportunities for DE courses and programs to their students. IPEDS does provide definitions (listed at the end of this report) to institutions on what comprises a DE course. Each institution is then responsible for coding their courses appropriately in their databases and reporting those enrollments during the annual IPEDS collection cycle. There can be incorrect data reported but right now this is one of the best data sources we have for understanding DE enrollments at degree granting institutions. 

IPEDS defines enrollment in DE courses in two ways: 1) Students who are enrolled only in courses that are considered distance education courses and 2) Students who are enrolled in at least one course that is considered a distance education course, but are not enrolled exclusively in distance education courses. The following chart reflects the growth in DE enrollments from fall 2012 to fall 2014 of students in both categories, which is also how the Babson report reported the IPEDS data.