Online Learning Faces Post-Pandemic Decline: Analyzing the Shift in EnrollmentBy Joy Liwanag
As the educational landscape emerges from the tumultuous period of pandemic-induced remote learning, recent data indicates a decline in online course enrollment for the 2022-23 academic year. According to statistics released by the National Center for Education, 53 percent of U.S. students were enrolled in at least one online course during this period, marking a decrease from the 59 percent recorded in the fall of 2021.
This dip was anticipated, given the abrupt surge in remote learning during the 2019-20 academic year at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite the gradual three-year decline, online learning's popularity remains significantly above pre-pandemic levels. In the 2018-19 academic year, only 35 percent of students participated in online courses.
Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer at Eduventures, views this trend as a positive indication of online learning becoming mainstream. He emphasizes that the spike in online enrollment during 2020 was an aberration, and the subsequent decline showcases a net positive trajectory.
Variations Across Institutions and Sectors
The data reveals significant variations in online learning participation based on the type of institution. Private colleges and universities experienced notable differences, with private, nonprofit institutions maintaining a relatively low percentage-roughly a quarter-of students exclusively enrolled in online courses. This number has remained consistent from 2018 to 2020, never exceeding 26 percent.
In contrast, private for-profit institutions have consistently maintained a higher percentage, with 52 percent of students exclusively enrolled in online courses during the most recent academic year. This figure has remained steady over the past five years.
Public institutions displayed a more balanced distribution, with student enrollment divided roughly into thirds: those taking all online courses, some online courses, or none at all. Among graduate students at public institutions, a higher proportion (46 percent) opted for entirely in-person classes.
James Wiley, VP of Product and Research at ListEdTech, highlighted the shifts observed in students' choices, with those exclusively enrolled in online courses now trending towards entirely in-person classes. Wiley noted the unexpected decrease in students enrolled in a mix of online and face-to-face courses.
Divergence from Growth Predictions
While the National Center for Education Statistics data presents a decline in online enrollment, it contrasts with predictions from various reports anticipating a growing demand for online education. A 2023 report on the "Changing Landscape of Online Education" suggests that two-thirds of institutions are actively adding online programs to meet this anticipated demand.
Richard Garrett, despite being a proponent of online courses, cautions universities, especially those facing financial challenges, to carefully assess if online education aligns with their goals. He emphasizes that merely offering online courses may not be a panacea for institutions unless they provide a unique and specialized offering that unlocks demand otherwise unattainable.
James Wiley echoes this sentiment, suggesting that the current data should prompt institutions to reevaluate their strategic focus on online offerings. The uncertainty of the future, as reflected in the declining online enrollment figures, warrants a cautious approach.
The decline in online learning participation post-pandemic signals a shifting landscape in higher education. Institutions must navigate this evolving terrain by reassessing their strategies, understanding the reasons behind declining online enrollment, and potentially diversifying their educational offerings. As the educational sector continues to adapt, the key lies in remaining flexible, responsive, and attuned to the evolving needs and preferences of students.