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Online learning has become an integral component of higher education, as is evident by the steady emergence and growth of online course offerings and online academic and professional degree programs. In most fields and disciplines, students can take advantage of a broad range of online learning opportunities, from individual online courses to fully online undergraduate, certificate, and graduate programs. However, choosing from among the many options for advancing one’s academic and career goals through an online program can be a challenge.

Enextcare.com researches and classifies online programs, tracks technological and pedagogical innovations in online instruction, interviews experts in the field, and publishes comprehensive, up-to-date information on various types of online degrees and programs. The site is designed to provide students with a definitive and expansive guide to online learning, to function as a practical resource for those who may be considering online educational opportunities, and to reduce the challenges inherent in choosing from among the growing number and types of online programs.

Note: All programs listed on the site are offered by accredited, non-profit colleges and universities. Programs offered by schools that lack proper accreditation and programs offered by for-profit colleges and universities are not included. In addition, programs on the site must offer all or most of their instruction online. See below to learn more about online vs. hybrid programs.

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The Evolution of Online Learning and Online Academic Programs

Online education is not a new phenomenon. It has its roots in distance education and the emergence of digital technologies that facilitate the efficient and reliable delivery of lectures, virtual classroom sessions, and other instructional materials and activities via the Internet. Advances in online learning management systems (LMSs) and instructional platforms, combined with persistent demand for affordable, high-quality education that is accessible to students who cannot or would prefer not to relocate or commute to a college campus, have positioned online instruction as a thriving and viable alternative to traditional campus-based instruction.

As a result, online learning, online courses, and online degree programs are an increasingly common feature in the realm of higher education. Most large public and private universities now offer online courses and many have fully or partially online undergraduate and/or graduate programs. In addition, a growing number of smaller colleges and universities have incorporated online learning options and are developing online courses and degree programs to enhance existing academic programs and to extend their reach to non-traditional students.

Tracking the Growth of Online Courses and Degree Programs

Data collected by the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics for its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) indicates that enrollment in online courses and degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels has been increasing steadily since 2013, when the overall number of students engaged in some type of online learning was roughly 5.3 million. In 2019, that number had risen to over 7.3 million, which equates to 36% of all students enrolled in colleges and universities.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which started in March of 2020 and resulted in the closure of college campuses across the World, brought about an unprecedented shift to online education. The most recent IPEDS data on enrollment in online courses contains data for the fall of 2020 and indicates that over 72% of college and university students were taking online courses.

The table below further illustrates the growth of online learning and the steady increase in online course and degree program enrollment over a four-year period, from 2016-2019. While the total number of students enrolled in college and university programs has remained relatively stable at roughly 20 million, an analysis of IPEDS data indicates that the number of students enrolled in the USA in online courses and in fully online programs grew by more than 1,095,000, from nearly 31% to over 36% of all students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. (The number of students in 2020 who were enrolled in online courses almost doubled compared to the number of students in 2019, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.)

Enrollment in Online Courses and Programs by Year (Undergraduate and Graduate in the USA)
Data Set20162017201820192020
Total student enrollment20,209,59620,211,25420,214,84720,253,91119,644,619
Students enrolled exclusive or partially in online courses6,242,7406,606,8006,974,1257,337,78514,238,741
Percent of students enrolled exclusively or partially in online courses30.89%32.69%34.50%36.23%72.48%

 

In practical terms, the data suggest that students currently enrolled in a college or university program and those who are considering a bachelor’s or graduate degree program are likely to have opportunities to take online courses, as well as options for pursuing a degree through a fully or partially online program.

Similarly, professionals with a bachelor’s or a master’s degree who are considering going back to school to add new skills, advance in their current field, and/or switch careers can typically do so from their home or office through online courses and degree programs in many if not most areas of study. As an indication of that trend, the number of graduate students who completed some or all of their courses online grew from approximately 34% to 42% from 2015 to 2019. Within these data, the segment of graduate students who completed their degree exclusively online went from 25.8% to 32.5% over that same period. In 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 70.4% of graduate students were enrolled in online courses.

The sudden move to online education in 2020 was clearly a reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the number of undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in online courses may decline somewhat as the pandemic recedes, it will be interesting to see if one of the lasting impacts of Covid-19 will be an embrace of online education among a greater number of colleges and universities and by a larger percentage of students.