“What do you think will happen?” That was the unanswered question that had been on everyone’s mind for the past three years. (It’s hard to believe that in a few days it will be three years since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic!) We watched and waited, adapted and corrected, and my institutional colleagues were more nimble than they ever imagined. they could be.
But I sense from many people I talk to a desire for things to “go back to normal”. It’s a human condition, as common as hoping for a bright sunny day in February.
The data is in
The Fall 2021 IPEDS Snapshot Data, like many things last year, suffered from a “supply chain shortfall” and was delayed by more than four months in its release. But we finally have the data points, and there are three things that are crystal clear:
1. College students did not return to classes in Fall 2021.
In the chart below, we see that while 4.2 million additional college students were squeezed into all online (or for many “emergency distance”) courses in fall 2020, only 2.5 million chose not to continue in this format in fall 2021. 1 more .8 million college students chose to enroll in full face-to-face (F2F) classes in 2021, after 5.9 million of them dropped out of the classroom in 2020. (See the left side of the visualization below.)
Another point of concern is the difference between 2.5 million fewer all online students in 2021 compared to only 1.8 million more in classrooms. A number of these students enrolled in the “some online” category, but others did not return, leading to a continued decline in undergraduate enrollment.
2. Graduate students are much more likely to return to their pre-pandemic format in 2021.
In the graph above, we see that while 638,000 additional graduate students were pushed into all online (or “emergency distance”) courses in Fall 2020, only 349,000 of them chose not to continue in this format in Fall 2021. In Fall 2021, another 470 000 graduate students chose to enroll in all courses in F2F classrooms after 844,000 migrated from all classrooms in 2020. We’ll see in our visualization in point 3 that this brought graduate enrollment back into much closer alignment with pre-pandemic. trends than at the college level.
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3. The pandemic likely had a much more lasting impact on undergraduate students’ choice of format than graduate students.
To assess the new data for 2021 against pre-pandemic trends, I calculated the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2012 and 2019 for each of the formats students choose. I then used that percentage to plot where enrollment might have been in 2020 and 2021 (barring any other significant impact). Here is what I found:
Undergraduate: Before the pandemic, the number of undergraduates who chose to enroll in all online courses grew by 6.5 percent per year, while the number of students who chose to enroll in all F2F classes declined by 3.1 percent per year (and those who decided to enroll in some online courses grew by 5.1 percent annually). Projecting the number of sign-ups using these pre-pandemic rates produced the three dotted lines in the chart below. (See the left side of the Enrollment Trends and Format Choice visualizations for undergraduate student trends.)
It’s clear that if it weren’t for the pandemic, there would be a large gap between those who chose all classrooms and those who chose all online courses for the foreseeable future. This difference amounted to more than 6.8 million students in 2019. Instead, the actual data shows a confluence of three lines that may result in some kind of plateau now that almost every student has tried online (and an as-yet-unknown percentage has decided that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In fact, in 2021, only 1.1 million more students chose all classroom courses over all online.
Complete: Before the pandemic, the number of graduate students who chose to enroll in all online courses grew by 8.8 percent annually, compared to a 1.6 percent annual decline among students who enrolled in all F2F courses. The number of graduate students choosing to enroll in some online courses has also been growing, but by about 5 percent per year and at a significantly lower overall rate than the number of students in any of the other formats.
Graduate market ratios were well on their way to converging before the pandemic hit, with just 776,000 students separating those enrolled in all classrooms and those enrolled in all online. While it would have taken 5-6 years pre-pandemic, the pandemic has accelerated these trends, and by Fall 2021, online and classroom students were nearly equal (with only 113,000 more students choosing full classroom over all online courses). As with the college student market, we still don’t know what effect the mass exposure to online learning during the pandemic will have on the graduate market, but if the Life cereal ad from the 1980s is accurate, a pretty sizable portion has “tried it.” and “I liked it”.
what does it all mean
RNL’s 2022 Online Student Recruiting Report stated that the biggest opportunity in the online education space is the expanding availability of online bachelor’s degree programs (this is because among our prospective student respondents, the largest proportion (34 percent) planned to study at this level online. Today data confirms that for many institutions, growth will go hand-in-hand with the availability of online programming.With 6+ million more college students studying in the classroom than online, it’s possible that some institutions decided to “stick to their roots.” but with only 1.1 million now preferring to study in a classroom, online is an essential component of growth.
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