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Report: Online Learning at Private Colleges and Universities in 2016

As part of our efforts to help colleges and universities provide the best possible experience to students, we conduct a number of primary research endeavors. Our most recent effort, Online Learning at Private Colleges and Universities 2016: A Survey of Chief Academic Officers, revisited a report we produced in 2013. In both instances, Learning House partnered with the Council of Independent Colleges to conduct a survey of chief academic officers at private colleges and universities to discover their thoughts about online learning: what the state of it was, how colleges were receiving and implementing it, and how it was affecting students and schools.

The results, while not surprising, were illuminating, and we hope they help institutions understand how to best position themselves for success. Here are just some of the key takeaways from the 2016 Online Learning at Private Colleges and Universities report.

More Programs, More Schools

We know from our 2016 Online College Students report that more students want online learning; half report that they definitely would not, probably would not, or are not sure if they would attend college if courses were not offered online. Colleges are listening to this preference. While online learning has been a part of the higher education landscape for at least a decade, the proliferation of programs is new. One-quarter of the colleges we surveyed in the Online Learning at Private Colleges and Universities report had at least five online programs, up from 15 percent in 2013.

Not only is the number of institutions with extensive online programs increasing, but the number of schools offering limited or no programs has decreased. It’s not just the same schools offering more online programs; instead, across the board it appears as if more institutions are fully investing in online programming, instead of offering one or two of the most popular programs online.

Overcoming Barriers

Faculty resistance is the biggest barrier to online learning, with 86 percent of institutions reporting that they have struggled with faculty acceptance at some point. A number of the other barriers might be contributing to this phenomenon; institutions also reported that online programming took more faculty time and effort than in-person programming, that online courses were more costly, and that there were questions about intellectual property ownership with online courses. I think what this tells us is that it’s not just an issue of faculty being resistant to change; there are real problems that need to be solved.

The good news is these problems can, in fact, be solved. A significant number of colleges reported having overcome those barriers: Only 48 percent still experience faculty resistance. Colleges clearly are finding solutions to common issues. As online learning increases, I think organizational structures will adapt to provide scalability and prove the ROI of online programs, helping to drive faculty acceptance.

It’s Not Perfect…Yet

Despite the increase in online program offerings, issues still remain with delivery. Schools report struggling with training faculty, providing services to students in need, providing access to campus resources, verifying student identity, monitoring exams, and detecting plagiarism. Not only are these problems being reported, but the number of schools that say they experience them has increased since 2013. This could be because more schools are offering more online programs, so the gaps in the system are becoming more evident.

One statistic of note is that 40 percent of schools report that faculty are seeing demands for “off hour” services, which is up from 30 percent in 2013. Given that online learning can pull students from different time zones and even different countries, and given that many students who use online learning work full time, this isn’t all that surprising. Online learning is asynchronous; an important way to grow online learning and improve its effectiveness is to accommodate these students and make sure they’re getting the attention they need.

Improved Outcomes

Barriers might exist, but the benefits of online learning are becoming increasingly clearer, with colleges having an easier time retaining students and measuring outcomes. In 2013, 23 percent of colleges reported having trouble retaining online students, and 28 percent reported difficulty measuring outcomes. In 2016, those numbers are 19 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

In 2016, 23 percent of colleges are also seeing an increase in degree completion rates, up from 16 percent in 2013. Increased enrollment and revenue are also commonly reported outcomes for institutions, as well as increased diversity of the student body, and more strategic partnerships with other institutions.

Online learning is even having an effect on on-ground learning. More colleges are seeing increased revenue for on-ground courses, as well as increased ability to conduct more sessions. And, although the rate has decreased somewhat from 2013 (70 percent down from 77 percent), the single biggest benefit to on-ground courses continues to be the introduction of new pedagogy to those courses.

An Expanded Student Population

We’re seeing fewer restrictions being placed on residential students who want to take online courses. In 2013, 57 percent of institutions placed some form of restriction on residential students, such as an age limit, not allowing freshmen, or giving priority to non-campus students. There’s been a shift away from this mentality; only 39 percent of institutions are placing such restrictions now.

The vast majority of students taking advantage of this are using their ability to engage with online courses to take additional coursework during the summer session, followed by fall/spring and winter.

There’s Room for Improvement

While there’s no question that online learning is allowing greater access and better service to students looking for an education, there are ways institutions could serve their student populations better. Currently, 96 percent of institutions rely on an “instructor-led” format, which is more similar to what students would find in a classroom. In our 2016 Online College Students report, about a third of students have expressed a preference for this style of teaching.

Two-thirds, however, were split between wanting a tutorial format — something similar to competency-based education (CBE), completing learning activities at their own pace with an instructor available for questions — and wanting independent study, working at their own pace with only books and other resources to guide them. Schools should consider making these types of learning experiences available to better meet student preferences, improve enrollment, and improve student retention and graduation.

The Future Looks Bright

Much like traditional higher education, online learning is evolving, with schools reporting interest in fostering international student enrollment, opening up access to even more people. Following that was a push for competency-based learning, fully online certificates, and hybrid undergrad degrees. One thing I think is clear is that, except for those schools that feel online learning does not meet their mission, more programs will be offered to more students, and those colleges that want to remain competitive will have to understand how to best deliver these online programs to students.

Download the full version of the report here, and then join us for our live webinar tomorrow, Nov. 17, at 1 p.m. EST. Dr. David Clinefelter, Chief Academic Officer of Learning House, and Andrew Magda, Manager of Market Research at Learning House, will be presenting the findings of this report and answering your questions. Register now!


About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: