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Institute of Education Sciences

Distance Education in College: What Do We Know From IPEDS?

Distance education (DE) is defined by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) as “education that uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor.” By allowing students to take classes online in their own locations and on their own schedules, DE has increased access to college. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020, DE has become an important way to deliver college classes while helping to keep students safe.

IPEDS collects information on DE in four of its surveys: Institutional Characteristics, Fall Enrollment, Completions, and, most recently, 12-Month Enrollment. The figures below present key statistics on DE course/program offerings and enrollments at U.S. colleges.

How many colleges offer distance education courses and programs?

In 2018–19, most colleges (79 percent) offered either stand-alone DE courses or entire DE programs (e.g., 100% online degrees). DE course and program offerings differed by the control (public, private nonprofit, or private for-profit) and level (4-year or 2-year) of the college.

  • Almost all public 4- and 2-year colleges (96 and 97 percent, respectively) offered either DE courses or DE programs.
  • A majority of private nonprofit and for-profit 2-year colleges (53 and 59 percent, respectively) did not offer DE courses or DE programs, though they account for a small number of colleges.

Figure 1. Percentage distribution of colleges, by control, level, and distance education (DE) offerings of college: Academic year 2018–19

NOTE: Figure includes U.S. degree-granting institutions that participate in Title IV federal financial aid programs. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Institutional Characteristics component, Fall 2018.


How many students are enrolled in distance education courses?

In fall 2018, about 6.9 million students enrolled in DE courses, or 35 percent of the total fall enrollment population (19.6 million).

  • Between fall 2012 and 2018, DE course enrollment increased 29 percent (from 5.4 to 6.9 million), while total fall enrollment declined by 5 percent (from 20.6 to 19.6 million).
  • The number of students enrolled in a mix of DE and face-to-face courses increased by 33 percent (from 2.8 to 3.7 million) between fall 2012 and 2018. The number of students enrolled in only DE courses also increased, but at a slower rate of 24 percent (from 2.6 to 3.3 million).

Figure 2. Total college enrollment, by distance education (DE) participation of students: Fall 2012 through fall 2018

NOTE: Figure includes U.S. degree-granting institutions that participate in Title IV federal financial aid programs. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Fall Enrollment component, Spring 2013 through Spring 2019.


How does enrollment in distance education courses vary by college control?

In fall 2018, the share of students enrolled in DE courses differed by control of the college.

  • About one-third of students at public and private nonprofit colleges enrolled in at least one DE course (34 and 30 percent, respectively).
  • At public colleges, students were more likely to enroll in a mix of DE and face-to-face courses (22 percent) than in only DE courses (12 percent). This trend reversed at private nonprofit colleges, with 10 percent of students enrolled in a mix of DE and face-to-face courses and 20 percent in only DE courses.
  • At private for-profit colleges, most students (73 percent) enrolled in at least one DE course (10 percent in a mix of DE and face-to-face courses and 63 percent in only DE courses).

Figure 3. Percentage distribution of college enrollment, by control of college and distance education (DE) participation of students: Fall 2012 through fall 2018

NOTES: Figure includes U.S. degree-granting institutions that participate in Title IV federal financial aid programs. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Fall Enrollment component, Spring 2013 through Spring 2019.


Among students enrolled in only DE courses, where do they live relative to their colleges?

Students taking only DE courses do not necessarily live far away from their colleges (even when physically coming to campus is generally not required), especially among students enrolled in public colleges.

  • In fall 2018, most (82 percent) of the 1.8 million students taking only DE courses at public colleges lived in the same state as their colleges. Only 15 percent lived in a different state.
  • At private nonprofit and for-profit colleges, students taking only DE courses were less likely to live in the same state as their colleges (35 percent and 17 percent, respectively) and more likely to live in a different state (63 percent and 81 percent, respectively) in fall 2018.

Figure 4. Percentage distribution of college enrollment for students enrolled in only distance education (DE) courses, by control of college and location of students: Fall 2018

NOTE: One square represents 1 percent. “State unknown” is reported by the institution when a student’s home state of residence cannot be determined; “Location unknown” is imputed by IPEDS to classify students when the institution does not report any residence status. Figure includes U.S. degree-granting institutions that participate in Title IV federal financial aid programs.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Fall Enrollment component, Spring 2019.


The DE enrollment figures above use the most recent IPEDS data available, which is limited to a fall “snapshot” date. However, in 2020–21, IPEDS expanded the 12-Month Enrollment survey to collect DE course enrollment for the entire 12-month academic year, which will provide even more information on DE enrollments at U.S. colleges. The first 12-month DE enrollment data, representing the 2019–20 academic year, will be released in spring 2021. These will be the first IPEDS enrollment data to overlap with the coronavirus pandemic, and DE course enrollments are expected to increase.

To learn more about DE data collected in IPEDS, visit the Distance Education in IPEDS resource page. To explore IPEDS data through easy-to-use web tools or to access data files to conduct your own original analyses like the ones presented in this blog, visit the IPEDS Use the Data page.

 

By Roman Ruiz and Jie Sun, AIR

Virtual schools: Measuring access to elementary and secondary education in online environments

By Mark Glander

Many people are familiar with the increasing availability of online education at the postsecondary level, but did you know that the number of virtual elementary and secondary schools is also growing? Virtual schools can offer flexibility to students who may have difficulty accessing or attending traditional schools, or as an alternative to homeschooling for parents who elect not to enroll their children in traditional brick and mortar schools. As the number of schools offering virtual education increases, it is important to be able to track these schools.

To gain a better understanding of the role virtual schools play in public elementary and secondary education, NCES added a flag identifying these schools to its Common Core of Data (CCD). The CCD is an annual collection of data from all public schools, public school districts, and state education agencies in the United States. The recently released School Year 2013–14 collection includes the new virtual school flag. For this purpose, a virtual school is defined as, “A public school that offers only instruction in which students and teachers are separated by time and/or location, and interaction occurs via computers and/or telecommunications technologies. A virtual school generally does not have a physical facility that allows students to attend classes on site.”

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia reported having one or more virtual schools for a total of 478 virtual schools in the U.S. in 2013–14. Florida reported the most of any state with a total of 182. A new data item is often under-reported in the first year of collection; ten states and other jurisdictions did not report having any virtual schools or reported virtual schools as not applicable (California, Delaware, North Dakota, Texas, Washington, the Department of Defense Education Activity, American Samoa, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). 

All but 12 of the reported schools were “regular” schools, meaning they offered a general academic curriculum rather than one focused on special needs or vocational education. 

The CCD distinguishes several types of local education agencies, defined by their level of governance.  Almost all virtual schools were administered by regular, local school districts (350 schools). Most other virtual schools were administered by independent charter school districts (116 schools), which are districts composed exclusively of charter schools.

The two states with the largest number of students in virtual schools were Ohio (38,169) and Pennsylvania (36,596).  Idaho had the largest percentage of students in virtual schools (2.4 percent), followed by Ohio (2.2 percent), and Pennsylvania (2.1 percent).

CCD identifies four school levels:  primary, middle, high, and “other”.  “Other” includes schools that span these categories and schools with high school grades but no 12th grade. A total of 309 of the 478 virtual schools had a school level of "other".  These schools accounted for 84 percent of students in virtual schools.

To see tables summarizing the above data, please visit our web page – http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/data_tables.asp.

To learn more about the CCD, please see our latest report, or visit our web page.  You can also access CCD data files for additional information about public elementary and secondary schools.