Why Online Education Is Growing

Distance education of one sort or another has been around for a long time. Correspondence courses helped people learn trades on their own free time, while radio or taped television courses educated students in remote areas. Now, with the rapid expansion and evolution of the Internet, online education has become a reality. What began as a convenient means of offering internal training to employees via corporate intranets has now spread to the general public over the worldwide web.

Online-only colleges and career schools have flourished, and traditional ground-based universities are moving courses and degree programs onto the Internet.  It’s now possible to earn a degree from an accredited college without ever setting foot on campus, and more people enroll every year.

Evidence of Growth

The Sloan Consortium, a non-profit foundation, conducts yearly surveys investigating online education. Their most recent report captured the online learning landscape as it stood in 2007-2008, revealing that

  • 20% of all US college students were studying online at least part-time in 2007;
  • 3.9 million students were taking at least one online course during Fall 2007, a growth rate of 12% on the previous year;
  • This growth rate is much faster than the overall higher education growth rate of 1.2%.

Higher Education: Meeting The Need For A Skilled Workforce

Higher education in general has grown greatly. Census data shows that in 1980, only 32% of US adults under 25 had earned a degree or completed any college coursework. By 2000, this number had jumped to 52%. Prosperity has played a role in this growth: as median incomes have risen over the past several decades, more people have been able to afford to send their children to college. Political support for putting people into college education, via Federal funding such as Pell Grants and loans, has also helped increase access to higher education.

However, the main driver behind the increase in higher education is the huge change in the overall economy of the US over the last fifty years. Changes in technology and globalization of the economy means the once-large manufacturing base of the United States has dwindled. Those jobs accounted for 40% of workers in 1950, but by 2000 had shrunk to include only 18% of the workforce. Most workers are now employed by the service sector, where more specialized skills are often a necessary requirement for finding a job. As a result, some post-secondary education is now seen as critical for workplace viability by a majority of the population.

Online Education: Meeting The Needs of the Skilled Workforce

And a majority of the population is now online: in 1997, less than 20% of US households had Internet access. By 2007, that percentage had grown to 61.7%. Internet access took only 7 years to reach 25% of US households, compared with 35 years for the television and 46 for household electricity. As with music, television, and newspapers, higher education needs to move to where the people are if it wants to expand its user base. Also, traditional campuses are having trouble maintaining facilities that meet the growing college population’s needs.  While the cost savings of running an online degree program aren’t tremendous (or at least aren’t a driving concern for university officials), it’s generally easier for colleges to move programs online than it is for them to build extensions to their campuses.

The sagging economy has also been good for online education.  The Sloan Consortium’s findings revealed that many institutions expect more working adults to turn to continuing education to build new skills or enhance existing ones to better their chances in the job marketplace, and also to avoid paying higher fuel costs as commuter students.

This is probably a safe bet: nearly 90 million adults participate in some form of continuing education every year even during good times, according to Census data. The convenience of being able to complete a degree without giving up employment makes online education attractive to working adults. As those adults strive to continue earning, they’ll want to continue learning.

Colorado Technical University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and a member of the North Central Association (30 North LaSalle Street, Suite 2400, Chicago, Illinois 60602-2504)

CTU does not guarantee employment, salary, or performance of graduates.