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NCES: For-Profits Lead the Way For Distance Learning

June 30, 2014 Digital Media Solutions

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recently published their first report dedicated to distance learning trends in postsecondary education across all institutional sectors. This report details distance education stats collected by Title IV institutions as part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey related to fall 2012 enrollment trends. As a result, institutions offering classes either fully or partially online will finally have insight into their peer institutions and the changes in student trending over time.

There were a few trends in the report that caught our eye:

For-Profits Lead the Way for Distance Learning

Overall, private for-profit institutions continue to have a substantially higher percentage of enrolled students taking either all or a portion of their coursework online: 42.6 percent of students are enrolled in exclusively online programs, and another 6.6 percent take some portion of their classes online

  • Only 25 percent of public institution students and slightly less than 20 percent of private non-profit institutions were enrolled in either fully or partially online programs
  • 70 percent of students are taking all or some portion of their coursework online at private for-profit 4-year institutions, sizeable difference from the public 4-year (22 percent) or private non-profit 4-year (19.5 percent) institutions

Distance Learning Depends On Geography

Student enrollment in distance education, whether full or partial, varies greatly by state

  • Regionally, states in the southwest, Rocky Mountain area, and the Plains tend to have highest percentages of students enrolled in online programs, with an average of 30-35 percent taking some portion of coursework online
  • Amongst private for-profit institutions, the most populous states (California, New York and Texas ) have lower percentages of students enrolled in online programs
  • Private for-profit schools in Illinois, despite that state being home to major metropolitan area Chicago, feature nearly 70 percent undergraduate and 72 percent graduate student distance learner rates
  • Amongst private for-profit institutions, Arizona has the highest total of undergraduate students taking exclusively online courses (236,098) and West Virginia has the highest rate (99%)

Distance Learning At For-Profits Depends On Degree Level

Over 75 percent of students pursuing a graduate degree offered at private for-profit institutions are doing so completely online, with another 5 percent taking partial coursework online.

Those pursuing a 2-year or less-than-2-year degree, on the other hand, are still primarily tending classes onsite – only 10 percent of students are taking any portion of their coursework online, likely due to the frequently hands-on or technical aspects of these programs.

Since this is the first time IPEDS has formally collected data regarding distance education, there’s no way to establish any trend just yet. However, the Sparkroom database – which is primarily comprised of private for-profit student inquiries – does provide some clues as to where this portion of the distance education student population may be heading in years to come:

  • Online student inquiry volume peaked in Q3/Q4 2012, which coincides with the timeline of the enrollment data provided by NCES. At the same time, inquiries for campus-based institutions increased during 2013.   Based on the fact that demand does seem to be declining for distance education specifically, this trend would indicate that private for-profit sector may begin seeing fewer enrollments in online programs.
  • Graduate students represent a strong and potentially growing segment of the distance education population at for-profit private institutions, though they only make up 13.5 percent of this total category. The data shows the prospective student inquiry volume from Q1 2010 through Q1 2014 – despite an overall downward trend in student inquiries for distance education programs, these increased significantly in 2013, and remained relatively strong in Q1 2014. This points to continued growth for this student population and opportunity for schools to continue to expand their offerings at the graduate level.

About the Author

Digital Media Solutions

Digital Media Solutions® (DMS), the largest single entry point for martech-enabled digital media distribution, deploys a robust database of consumer intelligence and leverages massive proprietary media distribution to provide customer acquisition campaigns that grow businesses, offer visibility into the customer experience and provide accountability for every media dollar spent. DMS continues to experience explosive year-over-year growth, with continuous recognition on the Inc. 5000 list, securing its sixth consecutive ranking in 2019, and the Entrepreneur magazine 360 list. Named one of America’s “Best Places to Work” by Inc. magazine and awarded the 2018 Excellence in Lead Generation Award by the LeadsCouncil, DMS brings together some of the industry’s most knowledgeable people, efficient processes and sophisticated technology across the digital marketing spectrum. For more information about DMS, visit Keep up with DMS news at and connect with us on LinkedIn at

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