Without question, a clear trend we see across IU is a growth in the number of students taking online classes and enrolling in online programs. As of spring 2020, more than 37 percent of IU students took at least one online course; 7 percent of our students now enroll in fully online programs. These trends have demonstrated consistent growth each year since 2013.
While it's clear that students are taking online courses and programs, it's important to ask why they're seeking online options and what impact these options have on face-to-face enrollments. Are these new students, or are we simply shifting students from face-to-face to online programs?
Shifts to online credits
Let's talk about the substitution of online coursework for face-to-face instruction. To put it bluntly, some think that if we didn't offer online courses, we wouldn't see a loss in face-to-face enrollments.
While we don't have definitive research to explain all reasons why students enroll in online education, we can look at trends in online enrollments versus face-to-face enrollments to see if the rate of increase in one is equivalent to the decrease in the other. If students were simply switching from one modality to the other, we would expect to see that the gain in online enrollments would be equivalent to the loss in face-to-face enrollment.
While this isn't an absolute answer, an initial review of credit hours by modality at each of the campuses seems to indicate that the loss of in-person credits is occurring at a greater pace than the increase in online credits. This would indicate that students are not turning to in-person coursework if online versions are not available. When given an option of in-person only, a larger portion simply don't enroll or take as many credits.
So, back to our initial question. Are online courses "luring" students away from in-person courses? Perhaps, to a certain extent, but this can't completely explain the loss of students in face-to-face courses. It is reasonable to assume that the overall loss in credits would be greater if we did not provide online coursework. An increasing number of students want, need, and prefer online options.
We have to remember that students are not captives of IU. They have choices. Lots of them. Whether they choose a large national provider (e.g., Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire, or Western Governors) or one of the increasingly aggressive regional providers (e.g., the University of Louisville and Campbell University are active advertisers in southeast Indiana), our students can easily find the online options they are looking for. If we don't provide options, students will simply go somewhere else.
The data seems to suggest that online education isn't simply a growth strategy; it's a retention strategy.
Movement from in-person to online programs
Another concern is that online programs, either at the same campus or at another, "steal" students from face-to-face programs. This leads to concerns and accusations that IU is shifting students around from one modality to another or that campuses are "pirating" students from other campuses.
Pirating is not a healthy dynamic. To determine if it exists, a few years ago the decision support team in the Office of Online Education looked at all students enrolled in online programs at IU. The team went back 10 years to see how these students entered the university. They found that, while a proportion did shift from in-person programs to online programs either (1) at their own campus (9.1 percent) or (2) at another campus (4.7 percent), the majority started and stayed enrolled in online programs (66.5 percent).
Most surprisingly, the team found that a good percentage of the students (15.4 percent) had stopped out of IU but later returned to enroll in an online program. These students would probably not have returned to campus to complete their degree. The online degree options enabled the university to bring students back to complete a degree—a very positive outcome!
When summarizing these findings, we feel confident that the majority (more than 85 percent) of students in online programs are not being stolen from in-person programs. The students who do shift between modalities and campuses are outnumbered by those IU brings back from having stopped out. Moreover, if we didn't have online options, we likely would have lost a good number of these students anyway, given the fact that students leverage online to fit their busy lives.
So yes, some students do move from in-person to online, but as with many things, the findings are nuanced. Students move from one modality to the next, but they don't do it at a rate that is unmanageable for campuses to accommodate. Moreover, any negative consequences are probably offset by the number of students who are attracted to online because they could not otherwise return to the university.
In conclusion, today's students demand both on-campus and online options. The university's challenge is to manage the right mix of options to meet student needs and expectations. Managed strategically, this mix will lead to the overall growth and health of the institution. As I wrote earlier, universities must "put online education on an equal footing with on-campus education" to remain relevant to modern learners.
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