The Department of Education’s recently released report on the condition of higher education in America revealed some interesting trends in education. They have even included a special section on the importance of distance learning, drawing data from the most recent years available, 2007-8.
With new developments in technology making distance learning possible and feasible for more students every day, it is little wonder that 20 percent of all undergraduate students in the U.S. participated in at least one distance learning course. Four percent of all undergrads were able to take their entire degree program via distance learning, never having to travel to an actual campus.
While the overall number of students taking distance learning courses increased significantly from previous years, the number of students taking only distance learning courses decreased slightly. The report does not offer any real explanations for these changes in numbers, one theory is that many undergraduates who begin exclusively taking distance learning courses realize that there are certain courses that they are unable to take in this manner, whether due to availability or scheduling issues.
Students at public institutions made up the highest percentage of distance learners, at 22 percent. It is also interesting to note, however, that for students completing their entire course of study via distance learning, students at private, for-profit schools made up the highest percentage, at 12 percent. This is likely due to the generally greater availability of online courses at for-profit institutions. Many of these programs were designed specifically for students who need to attend classes on an unconventional schedule, or from a large geographical distance.
What some may find surprising is that a larger number of older students participated in distance learning options than younger students. Of those students 30 years of age or older, 30 percent took distance learning courses. While some might think that technological and other issues would restrict the number of older students taking these types of courses, it is perhaps best explained by the fact that these students are looking for courses and programs with a more flexible schedule, due to career and family obligations.
This line of thinking goes along with the finding that 33 percent of married undergraduates with children took distance learning classes, more than those who were unmarried and without children, as well as those who were married and without children.
The conclusion that can be drawn from these numbers is that distance learning options are making higher education a more realistic possibility for groups of students that were traditionally marginalized, trying to fit a school schedule into their busy family and career schedules. Distance learning is a powerful tool, and it is opening up the world of higher education to more and different types of students.