5 Charts that Illustrate Trends in Online Programs

Grant DeRoo

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Inside Higher Ed recently reported that the percentage of academic programs available online declined between 2016 and 2017. Bear in mind it was a very small decline (12.1 percent to 11.8 percent), but it is nevertheless important because this is the first time since the data were tracked that the percentage declined from one year to the next.

Given their convenience and prices that are often lower than in-person education, online programs have  increased in number in the past decade. As a result, colleges have rushed into the market. For instance, 20,000 more online degree and certificate programs were offered in 2017 than in 2013 (86,592 vs. 66,354)—a 30 percent increase in five years.   

As the chart below shows, the percentage of all degree and certificate programs available online grew during those years but declined ever so slightly after 2016.

The decline could be a one-year aberration (maybe there was simply a flood of new face-to-face programs in 2017). But the fact that the actual number of online programs declined as well (87,249 in 2016 vs. 86,592 in 2017) raises the question: Are we seeing saturation in the online program market?

Personally, I don’t believe so. Not yet, anyway. There is still tremendous demand for online programs, and I don’t see convenience or lower prices falling out of favor anytime soon.

But to inform the discussion a bit more, I looked closer at the data by degree level, school type, urbanization, and program category.

Degree Level

When you cut the data by degree level, a different picture emerges. Taking a look at the chart below, it’s clear that while the percentage of online associate’s and bachelor’s programs declined, after peaking in 2016, master’s programs continued to rise.

It appears that some colleges have possibly seen lower demand for online associate’s and bachelor’s programs and decided to stick to face-to-face offerings or close the program altogether. On the other hand, demand for online master’s programs may be strong enough to continue to support growth in online programs. (Note: I focused on these three degree types because they comprise the majority of all online offerings; however, it would also be worth exploring demand for online certificates and doctoral programs.)

School Type

Yet another picture emerges when you look at the data by school type. In fact, this may be one of the more telling analyses because, as the chart below shows, the online market is largely distorted by fluctuations among for-profit colleges.

The percentage of programs that are available online declined slightly in 2017 for public two-years, rose slightly for public four-years, rose more considerably for private non-profits, and dropped dramatically for for-profits. The sudden rise and fall in 2016 and 2017, respectively, may be due simply to miscategorized data among for-profits (such as when University of Phoenix consolidated its IPEDS reporting). So let’s disregard it for the moment.

Inquisitive minds are better served by focusing on trends among non-profit institutions, such as the notable increase among private non-profits, which added 2,637 online programs between 2016 and 2017 alone.

Online options continued to rise among public four-years as well, albeit more slowly, with the addition of 1,824 online programs between 2016 and 2017. It is also noteworthy that 153 fewer online programs were offered at community colleges in 2017 than in 2016.

Urbanization

Urbanization is the degree to which a school’s location is in an urban setting. IPEDS includes 12 categories for urbanization that we’ve collapsed into four: rural, town, suburban, and urban. The chart below shows the percentage of programs available online according to the school’s urbanization.

Consistent with what we suspected, colleges in rural areas continue to increase their number of online offerings to extend their reach beyond their immediate service areas. They offer more online because it offers access to students that their region does not. Rural institutions added 408 online programs in 2017 alone.

Colleges located in towns or cities maintained their number of online programs between 2016 and 2017. The only segment to actually decline in this two-year span is suburban schools, which cut 756 online programs after 2016.

Academic Program

There are notable differences between academic fields in the online arena. For instance, whereas one- quarter (25.6 percent) of Liberal Arts programs are available online, only 1.6 percent of Biology programs are. And these differences are logical: Some fields lend better to online study than others.

To assess differences in trends, we looked at the top five largest fields for online study: Business, Health Professions, Education, Computer and Information Sciences, and Security and Law Enforcement.

The chart below shows the percentage of programs in each field available online in 2016 and 2017. The three fields with the highest percentages of online programs—Security and Law Enforcement, Business, and Computer and Information Sciences—declined year over year in 2016. And Health Professions, more or less, held constant.

Concluding Thoughts

It’s not lost on me that this article focuses only on changes from one year to the next. That type of short-term focus is often limited, at best.

So I’ll reiterate a point I made at the outset: Over the past several years, the share of programs available online has grown, suggesting that demand for online programs also has grown. In fact, online programs grew in all five of the fields mentioned above between 2013 and 2017.

And while it’s limiting to consider only one year of data, there is tremendous value in looking at the five-year picture shown in the charts above.

Further, when numbers dip for one year, it’s important to consider the data to see if this is likely to be a one-year change or the beginning of a trend. Time will tell on that latter point. I remain bullish on the future of online programs, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be occasional ups and downs.


If you’re interested in discussing demand for online programs or marketing to online students, please contact us.

Methodology: All data were compiled from IPEDS for the years 2013-2017 (the most recent five-year period available). Overall online program figures represent totals for all degree and certificate types for all institution types. Program data are organized according to the program’s two-digit CIP code.

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