The National Center for Education Statistics has three definitions associated to Distance Education as part of the annual higher education data collection through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). It is important to understand these definitions as the Fall Enrollment Survey and the Completions Survey utilize these as part of the requirements for data collection and for the reporting of results to reflect distance education enrollments and distance education programs.
Distance Education is defined as “education that uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor synchronously or asynchronously. Technologies used for instruction may include the following: Internet; one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcasts, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite or wireless communication devices; audio conferencing; and video cassette, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, if the cassette, DVDs, and CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with the technologies listed above”.
Distance Education Course is defined as “a course in which the instructional content is delivered exclusively via distance education. Requirements for coming to campus for orientation, testing, or academic support services do not exclude a course from being classified as distance education”.
Distance Education Program is defined as “a program for which all the required coursework for program completion is able to be completed via distance education courses”.
Distance Education Reported in the Completions Survey
The Completions Survey is where data on degree completions and degree completers are reported on an annual basis. Institutions report all degrees and other awards conferred during an entire academic year, from July 1 of one calendar year through June 30 of the following year. For example, the most current completion data is from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019. One reporting feature of the completions survey is that institutions are required to report the number of distance education programs offered by Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP), which is a detailed coding system for postsecondary instructional programs.
Institutions are required to report, by CIP and award level [i.e. Associates, Bachelor’s, Master’, Doctor’s degree, etc.], the number of students completing their degree during the reporting period. Further, institutions report the number of degree programs that are offered as a distance education program. This data point provides insights as to how many distance education programs are offered by award level as well as by CIP. It is critical that institutions only count distance education programs that allow the student to complete all of the degree requirement coursework through distance education courses.
What we do not know from the completions survey is how many students completed their degree through a distance education program.
Distance Education Reported in the Enrollment Survey
Since fall 2012, IPEDS has been collecting enrollment data, at the undergraduate, graduate and certificate level, specifically as it relates to distance education. This new data collection requirement added three new reporting categories for distance education enrollments:
Enrolled exclusively in distance education courses:
Students who are enrolled only in courses that are considered distance education courses.
Enrolled in some but not all distance education courses:
Students who are enrolled in at least one course that is considered a distance education course, but are not enrolled exclusively in distance education courses.
Not enrolled in any distance education courses:
Students who are not enrolled in any distance education courses.
The keyword in all of these reporting requirements is courses. Institutions were not required to report students enrolled in distance education programs [often referred to as an online program], rather they are required to report students who were enrolled, during the collection period, in courses that are defined as being distance education, per the IPEDS definitions discussed earlier. This is an important piece of information to understand as often times the data from the fall enrollment survey is utilized to demonstrate or reflect that ‘online programs are growing’ or ‘more students are enrolling in online programs’.
The truth from the IPEDS data is that we really do not know whether more students are enrolling in online programs or not. What we do know, is that more students are enrolling in distance education courses: up 29 percent at degree-granting institutions from fall 2012 to fall 2018. Even this data point can be misleading, however. As reflected earlier, IPEDS has two categories of distance education enrollments: 1) Students who are enrolled exclusively in distance education courses and 2) Students who are enrolled in some but not all distance education courses. These two categories are often combined to reflect a ‘total distance education enrollment’, which is appropriate, but it is also important to evaluate the two categories independent of each other. Our free annual enrollment report shares a lot more details about these enrollment categories.
What we do not know from the fall enrollment survey is how many students are enrolled in a distance education course by CIP.