In recent years, online college courses have grown rapidly. Traditional schools have offered increasing numbers of courses and degree programs online. Enrollment in online college increased even as college enrollment decreased across the nation. Today, millions of college students study online and more than one-quarter of all higher education students will take at least one online course.

Beyond the Numbers

The National Center for Education Statistics monitors the number of students engaged in distance learning annually. In the most recent year for which full data is available, about 5.4 million students, or 25.8 percent of the college student population, took at least one online class. About 2,642,158 students – 12.5 percent of all college students – took online courses exclusively, and the other 13.3 percent of students combined online studies with traditional courses. These statistics show that online studies are gaining popularity. In 2007-2008, just 20 percent of undergraduate students took any online courses at all, and only 3.7 percent took online courses exclusively, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Graduate-level college students were substantially more likely than undergraduate students to take online courses only. About 22 percent of this population studied online exclusively compared to just 11 percent of undergraduate students. Undergraduate students were more likely to take a mix of online and traditional courses, as 14.2 percent did, compared to graduate students. Only 7.8 percent of grad students took both kinds of courses. Generally speaking, students in the Southwest region of the United States had the highest rates of embracing online courses for at least part of their education. However, the single state that saw the highest rate of online-only students was New Hampshire, where 17.6 percent of students never had to set foot on campus. 

The Popularity of Online College

There are many reasons for the booming popularity of online college studies. One of the biggest advantages of studying online is the convenience and flexibility of being able to complete coursework on your schedule from virtually anywhere in the world. The flexibility makes online college appeal to full-time and part-time students alike. Being able to work from home without having to work around a rigid class schedule makes online college ideal for nontraditional and working students as well as those balancing family obligations along with their educational pursuits.

Other factors that make online college popular are the possibilities of saving money and graduating earlier, although students need to research individual online college programs to determine the cost and timeframe of their education. Because students learn remotely rather than in a physical classroom on-campus, distance learning studies also allow students to attend schools that are too far from their homes and workplaces to commute to without forcing them to move.

With the popularity of online college degree programs on the rise, higher education institutions from community colleges to law schools are adding more online course options. As long as students continue to value flexibility, online college programs will continue to thrive.