As we come to the close of 2019, I've taken some time to reflect a bit on the state of online education, and I can't help but be impressed by the commitment and achievements of our faculty, students, and staff in growing online education. The model IU chose to pursue has proven to be the right path in almost every way, and I continue to be honored to be a part of the evolution that online education has proven to be at IU.
Beginning in 2011, IU was quick to recognize the strategic importance of online education. IU's investments in online classes and programs were visionary and judicious. The 2011 Strategic Plan for Online Education positioned both synchronous and asynchronous online modalities as integral parts of the university. The plan ensured that online education would leverage and build on the best of IU resources, build economies of scale, and encourage cost savings through strategic partnerships. While further refined in Moving Forward, Moving Forward 2.0, and Executive Vice President for University Academic Affairs John Applegate's IU Online: A Collaborative Model for Online Education at Indiana University, IU's commitment to its initial vision of an online education that is not separate or parallel, but instead integral, to its traditional courses and programs remains a foundational pillar of IU Online.
A smart investment for the whole university
IU's early investment positioned the university to play a leading, innovative role in what has become known as the "normalization of online learning." At IU, the data confirm the growth and normalization of online learning at Indiana University between 2013 and 2019 (see Figures 1 and 2). Online education isn't just about finding "niche" markets or providing access to students who can't come to campus. It's increasingly about being in line with expectations for higher education of all students. Quite simply, students of all backgrounds want online education options.
This growth has made IU the largest provider of online education to Indiana students studying at four-year institutions, according to the Indiana Business Journal. Only Ivy Tech Community College tops IU in the number of total online enrollments of Indiana residents (see Figure 3).
These enrollments translate into significant revenue for the university. In fiscal year 2018–19, IU Online courses contributed some $173 million to the university in tuition revenue, up 10 percent from 2017–18, and representing 13 percent of all tuition revenue on all campuses. This figure grows each year.
National enrollment trends
In recent years, we've heard a lot about the "enrollment cliff of 2025," when demographic shifts will result in significant changes in high school graduates—particularly in the Midwest and on the east coast. (For more information about this discussion, see Nathan D. Grawe's book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, 2018.) But for some of our campuses, we don't have to wait until 2025. These demographic shifts are happening now.
In addition to demographic changes, we are seeing increasing levels of comfort with digital education. Simply put, whether it's in high school or another college or simply in how people interact with the world, students are expecting more online options in the education.
So, while we see growth in online education, we also are seeing a gradual decline in enrollment in exclusively on-campus classes across IU since 2016. We're not alone. IU is part of a national trend. An article referencing a National Center for Education Statistics report notes that overall US postsecondary enrollment dropped by nearly half a percentage point between fall 2016 and fall 2017. During the same period, the number of all students who took at least some courses online grew by more than 5.7 percent.
This coupling of the increased acceptance and utilization of online education and a decline in traditional high school students reinforces the importance of IU's commitment to making online education a core element of its education.
A prominent place in the university discussion
It's clear that online education is a growing, go-to modality that now holds a prominent place in university discussions and planning.
In his 2019 State of the University Address, IU President Michael McRobbie stated that the founding of IU Online was "based on our prediction of what the successful model of online education would be." IU Online, he said, has "cemented itself as the state's online education powerhouse for four-year and graduate study, with one-tenth of IU's total enrollment in online programs, and generating one-tenth of all tuition revenue."
As it looks to the future, IU Online will continue to act strategically, investing its energy and resources in programs that prepare students for employment in growth sectors of the economy, targeting those audiences who want and need additional education but whose circumstances prevent them from attending on-campus classes, assisting in the retention and graduation of our traditional students, and providing faculty with the technology and support services that encourage adoption and innovation.