By The Numbers: The Rise Of Online Learning In The U.S. – Forbes Advisor

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Remote learning has skyrocketed in popularity since the early 2010s. Today, most college and university students in the U.S. take at least some classes online.

Online degrees have a broad reach, encompassing new higher education concepts like microcredentials and massive open online courses (MOOCs), along with traditional college degrees.

Distance learners, too, are a diverse group. As a remote student, your peers may include traditional college-age students, working parents, military service members, established professionals and lifelong learners.

This fast-growing field clearly holds wide appeal, but how big is online learning, exactly?

This article examines the popularity of online learning, charting how fast the field has grown in recent years and exploring the motivations behind distance learning. If you’re a prospective or current online student, a parent or an educator—or if you’re just curious about the online learning phenomenon—these are the key statistics to know.

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All types of colleges and universities offer classes online. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), public colleges enrolled about 7.5 million online students in 2022. Another 2.6 million remote learners attended private schools, including 1.8 million at nonprofit institutions and nearly 800,000 at for-profit schools.

The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the availability of online learning in higher education starting in 2020. NCES reports that 75% of all postsecondary students in the U.S.—over 14 million learners—took online classes in fall 2020 as the pandemic restricted in-person learning, whereas only 36% had enrolled in distance education in fall 2019.

With many schools opening classrooms for in-person learning again in 2021, the percentage of students enrolled in distance learning courses dropped to about 59%—still much higher than in pre-pandemic years. Online learning rates fell slightly further in 2022, but remained over half.

Online enrollment levels vary depending on where students live. Alaska, West Virginia and New Hampshire boast the highest percentages of online students in the United States.

Many online degree seekers attend traditional schools, but as of 2021, about 6% of all U.S. college students attended primarily online institutions. NCES defines primarily online schools as those enrolling 90% or more of their student body in distance education. About 4.5% of U.S. colleges and universities—175 institutions in total—fit this profile.

Often catering to working students, some online schools have always offered fully remote programs. Others began as traditional campus-based institutions, later establishing online divisions that grew to dwarf their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

In 2021, primarily online schools enrolled over 578,000 full-time degree seekers. Another 550,000 learners took classes part time. Female students outnumbered male students among both full-time and part-time enrollees, making up about 65% of all learners.

In 2020, the onset of Covid-19 disrupted traditional education, abruptly forcing students, instructors and administrators to adapt to remote learning models.

Even before the pandemic, however, remote learning had been growing steadily for almost a decade as daily life became more digitized and remote learning technology and infrastructure improved.

In 2012—a watershed year in online education that saw the founding of MOOC giants edX and Coursera—over 25% of U.S. college and university students took at least one distance learning course, NCES reports. By 2019, that number had risen to 36%, about half of whom attended exclusively online.

In 2020, the number of online students at traditional higher education institutions exploded as schools shifted courses online amid lockdown restrictions. During that year, about 46% of U.S. learners studied entirely online, and another 28% took at least some courses remotely. In 2021, remote learning numbers remained high, with about 59% of college students taking some or all of their classes online.

Many traditional degree-seeking students returned to in-person learning when schools reopened in 2021, but online education as a whole continued to grow.

The World Economic Forum reports that in 2016, Coursera had 21 million registered users. By 2019, 44 million learners used the MOOC platform. This number leaped to 71 million in 2020, but unlike online college enrollment numbers, Coursera’s enrollment did not drop in 2021. Instead, the platform gained even more users, totaling 92 million in 2022.

Remote learning programs serve this growing body of online students with degree programs at all levels. The online learning sector is growing particularly quickly at the graduate level. NCES reports that in the 2020–21 academic year, primarily online colleges conferred:

Male-identifying students earned about 37% of associate and bachelor’s degrees, with female-identifying students earning about 63%. Among graduate students at online schools, female-identifying degree seekers earned around 70% of all master’s and doctoral degrees.

Students at primarily online schools make up 6% of all college and university enrollees. They earn:

Online doctoral programs are relatively uncommon; remote learners earn only 3.5% of all doctorates.

As of fall 2021, online schools served a slightly lower percentage of learners from minority or historically underrepresented backgrounds than conventional schools. Across most reported categories, students from these populations enrolled at brick-and-mortar institutions in larger numbers, although these figures also include students who took classes fully or partially online. Black students were a major exception, making up 23.1% of students at online schools and only 11.8% of those enrolled at traditional colleges.

Online learning is a form of distance learning that allows students to complete their studies via the internet. Online learning platforms use videos, discussion boards and other materials to convey lessons and administer tests.

The effectiveness of online learning depends on the subject you’re studying and your unique learning style. Generally, distance learning is less structured than traditional learning and requires strong self-discipline and time management skills. If you prefer a stricter schedule and more individualized attention from your instructors, you might prefer in-person or hybrid learning environments.

No, online school is not necessarily easier than in-person learning. Though online learning often offers more flexibility, many students find online school more challenging since it requires more self-discipline.

With five years of experience as a writer and editor in the higher education and career development space, Ilana has a passion for creating accessible, relevant content that demystifies the higher-ed landscape for traditional and nontraditional learners alike. Prior to joining Forbes Advisor’s education team, Ilana wrote and edited for websites such as BestColleges.com and AffordableCollegesOnline.org.

Veronica Beagle is the managing editor for Education at Forbes Advisor. She completed her master’s in English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Before coming to Forbes Advisor she worked on education related content at HigherEducation.com and Red Ventures as both a copy editor and content manager.