Speeding Toward a Slowdown?

Online college enrollments grew by 21 percent to 5.6 million last fall, the biggest percentage increase in several years, according to a report scheduled to be released today by the Sloan Consortium and the Babson Survey Research Group.

At the same time, the authors say online growth might begin to slow down in the near future, as the biggest drivers of enrollment growth face budget challenges and stricter recruitment oversight from the federal government.

Nearly one million more students took an online course in fall 2009 than in the previous year, according to the new survey, which drew responses from 2,583 academic leaders at both nonprofit and for-profit institutions across the country. That is the biggest numerical increase in the eight-year history of the report, and the largest proportional increase (21.1 percent) since 2005. Online enrollments have grown at more than nine times the rate of general enrollment since 2002. Almost a third of all college students in the country take at least one course online.

The conventional wisdom has been that the economic crisis has spurred at least some of that growth, as adults looking to increase their job prospects have gone back to school for a new degree. Three-quarters of the institutions surveyed said the recession drove interest in their online programs. In the year since Sloan administered its survey, there has been more talk of online enrollment growth as a strategy for making up for shrinking state allocations at public university systems — especially in places like California, where some think a massive online expansion could lift the state university system out of financial ruin, and Minnesota, where possible Republican presidential challenger Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made the idea of less-expensive online public higher education one of his talking points.

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