December 6, 2023

In the November 2022 blog, I presented some high-level findings about the differences between IPEDS 12-month unduplicated headcount figures (“12-month data”) and IPEDS fall snapshot numbers (“snapshot data”). Snapshot Data is used by almost everyone in higher education to understand trends and dynamics.

While the November blog suggested that the Snapshot Data in 2019 (the last year before the pandemic) underestimated the total enrollment by nearly 6 million students, I didn’t get too far into where those missing students were hidden. All of this can be found when you look at differences in enrollment by educational format chosen by students. Where they stand is just one of three statistics that I believe are key indicators of the transformational changes taking place in American higher education.

1. “Under-represented” students are almost ALL online or hybrid students

When comparing 12-month data, the IPEDS Snapshot Data underestimates the total enrollment of more than 5.6 million undergraduates and more than 820,000 graduate students. The vast majority of these uncounted students chose to enroll in either all online courses (1.8 million undergraduates and 445,000 graduate students) or some online courses (3.2 million undergraduates and 380,000 graduate students).

Blog: Undercounting Online Students, statistics showing how undergraduate and graduate students have been undercounted online.

Let’s think about why they were not counted. Snapshot Data is a reflection of the number of students enrolled on a given day (October I think) of each school year. If you are not enrolled at this point, you will not be counted. So it follows that the uncounted 6+ million students enrolled at some other time of the year.

Implication: The huge implication for higher education institutions is that if you don’t have extra times each year – with a massive recruiting effort throughout the year – you have no chance of getting your “share” of these uncounted students.

2. Registration patterns did not “come back” in 2021.

While commentators and experts have suggested that the pandemic will be a transformative event, dozens of people have told me they expect a relatively quick return to “normal” in terms of student learning format choices. What was the basis for this prediction? A dozen variants of “distance learning has been so bad that our students long for a pre-pandemic style of learning.”

With the fall 2021 snapshot dates finally available, it is clear that there has been no return to “normal” enrollment patterns as it pertains to the teaching format. By fall 2021, most institutions were back on campus with security measures in place. But the data shows that—in aggregate—students just didn’t show up in the same way. (I will report on 12 months 2021 data later.)

Blog: Post-pandemic enrollment choice data showing net new undergraduates and graduate students

Fall 2020 saw 5.9 million fewer undergraduate students, but only 1.8 million (not all 5.9 million) returned to full-time study in fall 2021. At the graduate level, there were 844,000 fewer full-time students in fall 2020, but only 470,000 returned to the classroom in fall 2021. Balance of students at both levels (given that the overall decline in undergraduate enrollment will continue in 2021) decided to either stick with all online study or enroll in a combination of online and classroom courses.

Implication: While some institutions will experience the kind of “return” to normal that was hoped for, many more institutions could be caught off guard in 2021 with enrollment numbers for all classes. Cazenovia College in New York is just one such institution that had to make the difficult decision to shut down permanently when (after many years of struggle) the incoming class for fall 2021 was smaller than ever before.

3. Classroom, online and semi-online registrations have reached parity

Long-term trend lines showing student choices whole class, some onlineand all online studies show that in 2021, nearly as many students will choose to enroll in all online courses as in all classroom courses—with about the same number of undergraduates choosing to enroll in some online.

This new data may indicate that the undergraduate and graduate degree markets will return to their pre-pandemic trends, where participation in fully online education slowly increased and participation in classroom-based education slowly declined. But this hypothesis does not take into account what I call the “try it, you’ll like it” factor in human behavior. The real X-factor in determining what happens in the future is the proportion of students who, after trying online or even emergency distance learning, are convinced that the advantages (flexibility, convenience, etc.) outweigh the disadvantages.

Blog: Registration trends and format selection since 2012

My own hypothesis, based on over 20 years of interviews, surveys and “focus groups” of students aged 25 and over, is that the “try it, you’ll like it” instinct is strong. In those 20 years, I have repeatedly heard, “I’m interested in online, but I’ve never done it.” Now millions of students have experienced this. With that in mind, I think we may see demand stagnate, with online, semi-online and classroom demand relatively equal, as traditional audiences shrink and institutions are forced to focus on alternative student audiences to make up enrollment gaps.

Implication: For most institutions, the growth strategy has shifted from viewing the availability of fully online programs as a “nice to have” to a “necessity.” Additionally, institutions that have online programs but are reluctant to allow classroom students to enroll in online courses will need to quickly reconsider this policy. This has all sorts of implications, not least which institutions should standardize their pricing for classroom and online courses.

Next month, we’ll look at the demographic changes most likely to matter as institutions continue to refine their long-term strategies. Did you know that RNL now offers online instructional design services, digital marketing solutions, recruitment/cultivation services, market research studies, student journey mapping and more? Unlike OPM, everything we do is transparent and owned you. Contact us today and take the time to discuss your needs.

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