Are Online Programs Growing or Dying?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Judith McDaniel, in her response (28 May 2009) to John Sener‘s article, “The Recession Is Affecting Online Higher Education – Duh…,” points us to an article that appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Rocky Start for Colorado State U.’s Online-Education Start-Up” (28 May 2009). She gives us a paradox to think about. As we receive glowing reports on the growth of online programs, we’re also seeing signs of their possible demise.


I did a quick google and found two more articles that suggest a decline. Citing “low and declining enrollment,” Butler Tech is eliminating one of its three online learning programs (Lindsey Hilty, “District to Revamp Online Programs,” JournalNews 5.31.09). The Navy, in response to a lack of funding, is dropping nearly 4,000 online courses (David J. Carter, “Navy Cuts Online Business, Technology Courses,” Stars and Stripes 6.2.09).

Which is it? And perhaps more importantly, why are we getting these mixed messages?

3 Responses

  1. On balance, it’s the former — they’re growing. Naturally, some are dying; that’s just part of the process.

    The Butler Tech program was a relatively low enrollment K-12 program that was designed to compete with virtual academies but appears to have lost out to a more popular program; as the article notes:

    “But with low and declining enrollment that totaled around 185 full-time students and 16 faculty, he said resources were better allocated elsewhere… when it was denied the ability to form its own charter school, Sommers said the program became a drain on resources, especially when there is a waiting list to get into more popular programs like Greentree Health Science Academy.”

    The Colorado State and Illinois Global Campuses sound strikingly reminiscent of the gold rush days when Temple and Maryland and other HEIs tried to strike it rich. Any business plan such as CSUs that projects an enrollment ascent from zero to 12K students in ~3 years risks crashing or falling short of expectations. (I can try to find out more about that one if there’s interest.) Don’t know what happened to the Illinois venture, but it could be concisely explained by one of the comments in the related CHE article:
    “This was a brilliant, pure, power play by a focused group from the Springfield and Urbana campuses, who accurately perceived that this was a great way to prevent competition for students…” In the meantime, I believe that UIS is projecting record online enrollments at a campus where over 65% of all summer students will be online students, according to one source.

    The Navy course cuts sound huge to higher education ears (4,000) but also fades upon closer examination. As the article notes, the courses were “primarily intended for personal enrichment…open to all active-duty and reserve sailors, ROTC students, delayed entry program members and Navy civil service employees as well as Navy retirees and qualified family members” and thus an easy target for a funding cut. Since the funding support was “part of a $25 (million) cut during [this] budget cycle,” one wonders exactly what kind of courses we’re talking about, since the math tells us that the cuts amount to $6250/course at most.

    And, in fact, it turns out that the “NETg catalog offers courses on business and professional development, desktop computing and information technology. SkillSoft’s courses include topics like business skills, information technology, federal government, legal compliance and test preparation for IT certifications.” In other words, most likely the self-paced, teacherless electronic page turner courses which are far more popular in the corporate/military/private sector.

    The vast preponderance of data indicates that online programs continue to grow at a hefty clip, that there is no plateau in sight, and that most observers expect this growth to increase in the near term as the result of the recession. Inevitably, there will be casualties along the way, perhaps even an uptick in them as institutions try to expand their online learning reach in ways that exceed their grasp. Someday, there will be a plateau. But right now, online programs are a-growin’…

  2. John, I agree with your analysis and conclusion.

    In another article, the writer mentioned a tipping point, or a point at which the number of online courses begins to tip the balance from F2F to online. Once this point is past, the growth of the online segment becomes rapid.

    Does this mean, therefore, that the bottom line is a numbers game and that pouring resources into an online program is often a losing proposition until the tipping point is reached? That to succeed, a program must be prepared to weather the initial losses? In short, is the prospect one in which things will get a lot worse before they bstart to get better?

    Have you found some useful generalizations re formulas for failure vs. formulas for success?

    Re the subject of business plans and time frames for success — I’d definitely be interested in your thoughts, findings.

  3. Online learning, per se, is not declining. But some online learning programs (ones that were ill-conceived and/or supported) will inevitably decline and/or fail. That’s the marketplace speaking. But these problem areas are few as online enrollment continues to grow at a double digit rate – far in excess of non-online higher ed enrollment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s