Nearly 60% of colleges want to keep distance learning momentum going

A new report highlights that pandemic-forced shifts may not be temporary.
By: | October 25, 2021
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A new report from the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) highlights how substantial the transformational shift was to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and what opportunities might lie ahead.

Among its 2,200 member institutions, NC-SARA’s sixth annual data report shows that exclusively remote learning enrollment jumped by 93% year-over-year from fall 2019 to 2020.

Another key data point released by the nonprofit organization is that two-thirds of students chose to do that online learning in their own state, nearly tripling the amount from the previous year to 3.9 million students, as the quick shift occurred. But even those choosing to go out of state to enroll in exclusively distance education was up by about 500,000 students.

“In a lot of ways, NC-SARA’s latest data report and dataset align with our expectations that distance education enrollment would skyrocket during the pandemic,” NC-SARA President and CEO Dr. Lori Williams said. “But it also sheds light on the ways higher education may continue to evolve and change in months and years after the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have signals for possible long-term modality shifts that may permanently alter the pursuit of postsecondary education.”

Some 700 institutions also participated in an exit survey provided by NC-SARA, which indicated the potential for the continuation of distance learning opportunities. Nearly 60% of the respondents that moved courses to the remote option (most of the others already were fully online) planned to use some or all of distance learning in the future.

“When it comes to affordability and access, this could be a very positive development to help more students pursue postsecondary education—but maintaining a strong focus on quality must also be a top priority for states, institutions and other higher education leaders,” Williams said.

One respondent told NC-SARA that “COVID response has taught us a lot about how we can effectively implement large-scale remote learning. These lessons are going to inform future decisions about expanding remote learning options.”

Inside the data

From the study, public institutions saw the highest jump in students making the transition to online at +144%. Tribal college students, though comprising a far smaller share, saw exclusive distance learning jump 107%, while private non-profits rose 47%. For-profits saw a 17% gain in those students.

Out-of-state learning placements sustained only a 4% decrease, stunning given the nature of those who must perform clinical hours for nursing, pre-service teaching and internships.

“We really thought it would be more than that,” said Terri Taylor-Strout, Educational Program Architect and Research Analyst at NC-SARA. “What it tells us is that a lot of people stuck with their programs, did their internships or did their student teaching. And institutions, in some cases, got creative with doing it virtually.”

Healthcare placements represented the vast majority at 56%, another surprising statistic given the prevalence and unknowns of COVID-19.

“It hints to the idea that people in those health professions continued with their education, putting themselves at risk to continue going into the hospital or the health care setting, to continue their degree program by doing that internship or helping deal with the pandemic,” Taylor-Straut said. “So that was heartening data to find.”

Aside from the sheer numbers provided on member institutions regarding distance learning, the NC-SARA report offers a unique breakdown that compares state-by-state where students are enrolling and where they are seeking exclusive distance-learning opportunities out of state.

“There are some silver linings that may provide opportunities for flexibility and greater access to education and to learning placement opportunities going forward,” said Rachel Christeson, Associate Director for Research and Data Analysis at NC-SARA.