Students taking online courses made up about a quarter of total enrollees at higher education institutions in 2012, and of those, more than half were taking exclusively online courses.
New survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which is part of the U.S. Education Department, reveals the impact that distance learning is having on institutions at the state level.
"Rapidly changing developments, including recent institutional and policy focus on massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other distance education innovations, have changed distance education offerings," the report notes.
The results come from surveys taken for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System during the fall semester in 2012 for institutions across the country that are eligible for Title IV financial aid. The findings are unique because 2012 was the first year the survey compiled data on online courses. NCES officials say they hope the data will provide a solid baseline to compare against future industry trends.
About 5.5 million students took at least one online course that year, 2.6 million of whom were enrolled exclusively in online courses.
Along with providing big-picture statistics, by breaking down the data by state, the survey sheds light on some trends among distance learners. It noted, for instance, that students are more likely to take online courses in their home state.
Private, four-year, for-profit institutions represent the single largest category for exclusively distance-learning students, at 901,601, which represents 61.3 percent of the total enrollment.
Biggest distance learning states
(students taking online-only courses / % of total school enrollment):
- Arizona: 360,835 (48.2 percent)
- Florida: 194,696 (16.1 percent)
- California: 170,659 (6.3 percent)
- Iowa: 144,223 (39.7 percent)
- Minnesota: 119,366 (26.2 percent)
California and Texas boast the largest total enrollment numbers on the list, but states with higher populations don't necessarily exhibit a greater concentration of distance learners.
The state with the most online-only students, and the highest concentration, is Arizona. The state is the home of the University of Phoenix, one of the first higher education institutions to open its doors wide to online learners.
When broken down by region, the largest concentration of distance learners is in the Plains states, including North and South Dakota. States with widely spread-out populations appear to benefit more from online course offerings, according to the data. The lowest concentration is in the Far West states, with New England close behind. Only 1.6 percent of Rhode Island's students were online-only — the lowest concentration in the survey.
Highest concentration of distance learners
(total school enrollment / % of online-only students)
- Arizona: 748,202 (48.2 percent)
- West Virginia: 165,159 (40 percent)
- Iowa: 363,359 (39.7 percent)
- Minnesota: 455,032 (26.2 percent)
- North Dakota: 55,853 (22.9 percent)
The survey also breaks down the data by ethnicity, degree goal and institution type. For more information on the survey results, visit the NCES website.
This infographic from CollegeAtlas charts the average online student — a 25- to 29-year-old woman, taking classes while working full-time and values the ability to balance work, family and schooling.