IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Distance education: Learning in non-traditional settings

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

Distance education courses and programs provide students with flexible learning opportunities. Distance education has become increasingly common at the postsecondary level. Many postsecondary institutions offer at least some online courses, while other institutions exclusively offer online programs and courses taught exclusively online. NCES collects data on distance education through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS).

IPEDS data on distance education provides information on the number and percentage of students participating in distance education at different types of institutions. In fall 2013, about 4.6 million undergraduate students participated in distance education, with 2.0 million students (11 percent of total undergraduate enrollment) exclusively taking distance education courses. Of the 2.0 million undergraduate students who exclusively took distance education courses, 1.1 million students (6 percent of total undergraduate enrollment) were enrolled in programs located in the same state in which they resided, and 0.8 million (4 percent of total undergraduate enrollment) were enrolled in a different state.

At the postbaccalaureate level, some 895,000 students (31 percent of total postbaccalaureate enrollment) participated in distance education in fall 2013, with 677,000 students (23 percent of total postbaccalaureate enrollment) exclusively taking distance education courses. Of the students who exclusively took distance education courses, 273,000 students (9 percent of total postbaccalaureate enrollment) were enrolled in programs located in the same state in which they resided, and 362,000 students (12 percent of total postbaccalaureate enrollment) were enrolled in a different state.


Percentage of undergraduate students at degree-granting postsecondary institutions who participated exclusively in distance education courses, by control and level of institution: Fall 2013

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 311.15.


The percentage of undergraduate students participating exclusively in distance education programs differed by institutional control. In fall 2013, a higher percentage of students at private for-profit 4-year institutions exclusively took distance education courses (58 percent) than did students at any other control and level of institution. Similarly, at the postbaccalaureate level, the percentage of students who exclusively took distance education courses in fall 2013 was higher for those enrolled at private for-profit institutions (79 percent) than for those at private nonprofit (19 percent) and public institutions (16 percent).

Data on distance education in IPEDS is at the institution level, and therefore does not provide data on how distance education may differ by student characteristics. However, NPSAS contains both institution- and student-level data and can therefore be used to examine whether participation in distance education differs based on student’s demographic characteristics. For example, findings from NPSAS show that a higher percentage of older adults enrolled in distance education classes than younger adults. In 2011–12, a higher percentage of undergraduates 30 years old and over took distance education classes or their entire degree program through distance education (41 percent and 13 percent, respectively) than undergraduates 24 to 29 years of age (36 percent and 8 percent, respectively) or undergraduates 15 to 23 years of age (26 percent and 3 percent, respectively).

Findings from NPSAS also show that enrollment in distance education was higher in 2011-12 than in previous years in which these data were collected. A higher percentage of undergraduates took distance education classes in 2011–12 (32 percent) than in 2007–08 (21 percent) or in 2003–04 (16 percent). Also, a higher percentage of undergraduates took their entire degree program through distance education in 2011–12 (6 percent) than in 2007–08 (4 percent) or in 2003–04 (5 percent).

Enrollment in distance education will likely continue to grow as additional institutions offer individual courses, or even entire degree programs, online. Drawing on new technologies, the scope of distance education activities have expanded to reach millions of students. Current and future NCES data collections will continue to monitor this trend.

The growing field of statistics

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted October 20th as World Statistics Day. Over 130 countries and areas of the world joined in the inaugural World Statistics Day celebration. October 20, 2015 is the second time World Statistics Day will be celebrated. This day is intended to highlight the important contributions statistics and statisticians make to a wide array of national and international activities.  The theme for World Statistics Day 2015 – “Better data. Better lives.” – reflects the important role that statistics plays in helping businesses, governments, and the public make informed decisions.

Careers in statistics are varied, and cover a range of areas that include politics, economics, finance, and governance. As the interest in data-driven decision making grows, so too does the demand for statisticians.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the job growth for statisticians will be much faster than the average overall job growth. As a reflection of that growth, the number of degrees conferred in the field of mathematics and statistics has increased over the last decade. For example, in 2002–03 there were 12,505 bachelor’s degrees conferred in mathematics and statistics and in 2012–13, there were 20,453 degrees conferred in this field. During this period, the number of degrees conferred also increased for master’s degrees (from 3,620 to 6,957), and doctor’s degrees (from 1,007 to 1,823). 


Bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics conferred by postsecondary institutions, by sex of student: 2002-03 through 2012-13SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 325.65.


While the number of degrees conferred in mathematics and statistics increased for both males and females over the past decade, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees conferred to males in 2012–13 was higher than the percentage for females (57 vs. 43 percent). Similarly, a higher percentage of master’s degrees in this field were conferred to males in 2012–13 (60 vs. 40 percent), and the same was true for doctor’s degrees (71 vs. 39 percent).

By collecting and disseminating data on the number of degrees conferred in different fields, NCES can help researchers, policy-makers, and the public to determine whether the changing demands of the workforce are likely to be met.

To find out more information about World Statistics Day, please visit https://worldstatisticsday.org/

What is the Price of College?

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

For many students and their families, a college education is seen as an investment in the future. But like all investments, the initial sacrifices can seem burdensome and the future is uncertain. NCES seeks to help students and their families make good decisions by providing access to timely information about the price of college and the availability of financial aid. The NCES College Navigator web site provides an array of search tools to help students locate institutions that meet their financial needs and academic interests. Additionally, the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires the U.S. Department of Education to report  current information and recent changes in net prices for college attendance, and tuition and fees charges at different types of institutions. Data on high and low cost institutions are published on the College Affordability and Transparency Center website. These sites can help students and their families make informed decisions about their most affordable options.

NCES recently released a report that examines the total, net, and out-of-pocket prices by type of institution in 2011-12. Although it is presented for institutions at an aggregate level, rather than for individual institutions, this report provides valuable information on the average prices for different types of degree-granting colleges, including breakdowns for students from families with different income levels. Overall, students at public 2-year colleges had the lowest average total price of attendance in 2011-12 at $15,000. Public 4-year institutions had the lowest average total price ($23,200) among 4-year colleges, and the average price of attendance at 4-year for-profit institutions was $29,300.  The average total price was highest at private non-profit 4-year institutions ($43,500); however, 4-year private nonprofit schools also awarded the most grant money and had the greatest percentage of students who received grants.

Factoring in financial aid, such as grants, loans, and work study, reduces the out-of-pocket costs that students and their families pay at various institutions. As a result, many full-time students pay less than the advertised total price of attendance. The out-of-pocket net price of attendance is based on the total price of attendance, but also accounts for the amount of grant and loan aid that students typically receive. Additionally, because many sources of aid are based on students’ financial need, there are differences in the out-of-pocket net price of attendance for dependent students from lower and higher income families. 

Overall, students at public 2-year colleges had the lowest out-of-pocket net price (after grants and loans) at $9,900 in 2011-12. The average out-of-pocket net price was $11,800 at public 4-year institutions and $15,000 at for-profit institutions. The largest difference between total price of attendance and out-of-pocket net price was at private nonprofit 4-year institutions, with the out-of-pocket net price ($18,100) being about $25,400 less than the average total price.  

Across all types of institutions, dependent students from lower income families (the lowest quarter of family incomes) had the lowest out-of-pocket net price. The average out-of-pocket net price for students from lower income families was $7,500 at public 2-year institutions, $7,100 at public 4-year institutions, $11,000 at private nonprofit institutions, and $15,000 at private for-profit institutions. In contrast, students from families in the top quarter of incomes had average out-of-pocket costs of $13,100 at public 2-year institutions, $16,800 at public 4-year institutions, $26,600 at private nonprofit institutions, and $22,300 at private for-profit institutions.

For more information on the total, net, and out-of-pocket prices by type of institution, please download the entire report: What is the Price of College: Total, Net, and Out-of-Pocket Prices by Type of Institution in 2011-12, or watch the video below.

Educational attainment differences by students’ socioeconomic status

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

Obtaining higher education can be an important step towards better occupational and economic outcomes. Lower levels of educational attainment are associated with higher unemployment rates and lower earnings. Although an increasing number of students have enrolled in postsecondary institutions over the last several decades, there are still differences in the characteristics of students who complete various levels of postsecondary education.

One particularly important issue to explore is differences in educational attainment by socioeconomic status (SES) to investigate the opportunities for social mobility that education can provide. Recently, NCES published a spotlight indicator on this topic to be included in the annual Condition of Education report. The report uses data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002), which surveyed students at different points during their secondary and postsecondary years. Students were first surveyed in 2002 when they were sophomores in high school. Then, their highest level of education was assessed ten years later, in 2012.


Percentage distribution of highest level of educational attainment of spring 2002 high school sophomores in 2012, by socioeconomic status (SES)

1 Includes education at any type of postsecondary institution, but with no earned postsecondary credential. 
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002). See Digest of Education Statistics 2014table 104.91.


Several key findings highlight differences in educational attainment by SES. For example:

  • Seven percent of low-SES students had not completed high school by 2012, greater than the percentages of middle- and high-SES students who had not completed high school by 2012;
  • By 2012, Fourteen percent of low-SES students who were high school sophomores in 2002 had earned a bachelor’s or higher degree, smaller than 29 percent of middle-SES students and 60 percent of high-SES students who earned a bachelor’s or higher degree; and
  • Compared to high-SES students, smaller percentages of low- and middle-SES students who performed in the highest quartile of math achievement during their sophomore year of high school went on to complete a bachelor’s degree by 2012.

Percentage of spring 2002 high school sophomores who earned a bachelor's degree or higher by 2012, by socioeconomic status (SES) and mathematics achievement quartile in 2002

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002). See Digest of Education Statistics 2014table 104.91.


The following video describes additional findings from the report:

College and career readiness: Using ELS:2002 to study important educational outcomes

By Elise Christopher and Lauren Musu-Gillette

Researchers, educators, and policy makers are interested in knowing what makes students ready for college and careers, and the Department of Education has identified college and career readiness as a priority. In 2011, the Department announced that it would allow for Elementary/Secondary Education Act (ESEA) flexibility for states that developed plans for reforms in certain key areas of education, including college and career readiness.  In order to investigate what factors may be associated with college and career outcomes, several important questions arise. For example:

  • How do students’ high school experiences relate to whether or not they have to enroll in remedial courses in college?
  • How do these same experiences relate to whether or not they successfully complete college?
  • What high school and college experiences are associated with successful career choices?

Questions like these are best answered with longitudinal surveys, which track the paths of students as they transition from school to college and the work force.  The longitudinal surveys conducted by NCES contain a wide variety of survey components that enable researchers to address policy-related topics across disciplines.  Such longitudinal data can be expensive and time consuming to collect, particularly if they are nationally representative with sufficient sample sizes to analyze barriers faced by disadvantaged young adults. Building a sound statistical foundation for these important analyses is one of the key contributions NCES makes when producing datasets such as the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002) for the education and research community.

ELS:2002 began by collecting data from a nationally representative cohort of students who were in the 10th grade in 2002. Follow up surveys were collected from these same students in 2004, 2006, and 2012. Some students enrolled in postsecondary institutions after high school, while others entered the workforce. ELS:2002 can be used to examine the educational and occupational paths of students over time, as well as the different factors that are associated with those paths.

ELS:2002 collected a wide variety of information including students’ school experiences and activities, plans for the future, family circumstances, and beliefs about themselves. Many variables in the ELS:2002 dataset are available to the public with no restrictions. The data are easily accessible for individuals who may be interested in examining how a variety of different backgrounds and experiences may affect students’ college and career readiness. Some variables are not in the public datasets to ensure that identities of survey respondents are protected, but are available to researchers who apply for a restricted use license.

Use of datasets such as ELS:2002 can assist researchers, educators and policy makers in answering important questions about how to prepare our students for college and careers.  For more information on accessing and using ELS:2002 data, please refer to information about available data, see our detailed selection of users manuals, or email the ELS:2002 staff.