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Distance Education at Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1997-98
NCES 2000013
December 1999

Executive Summary

Many see the rise in the availability of technology-supported distance education—that is, the delivery of instruction over a distance to individuals located in one or more venues—not only as a revolutionary opportunity to increase access to postsecondary education, but also as an opportunity to hasten the overall pace of reform in higher education (Ehrmann n.d.). In contrast to the institutional status quo, what was once an eclectic assortment of individually accessed, noncredit educational courses is quickly being knit into comprehensive degree- and certificategranting programs (Phipps, Wellman, and Merisotis 1998). Indeed, if a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 9, 1999, A27) is any indication, the distance education industry is thriving: "For an industry that barely existed three years ago, the level of activity is dizzying."

This report presents findings from the second nationally representative survey of distance education undertaken by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This survey was conducted in winter 1998–99, and collected information about the 12-month 1997–98 academic year. The first report, Distance Education in Higher Education Institutions (U.S. Department of Education 1997) was based on data from a 1995 NCES Postsecondary Education Quick Information System (PEQIS) survey of higher education institutions. The current report updates and expands upon the findings from the previous report in several important ways. Perhaps most significantly, the current survey expands the universe of institutions from which it collected data, from higher education institutions to all 2-year and 4-year postsecondary institutions. In addition, this report also presents new information about fields of study and instructional levels of courses and programs offered through distance education, as well as information about how tuition and fees charged for distance education courses compare to those charged for on-campus courses. Finally, this report also provides trend information for higher education institutions, including changes in the percentage of higher education institutions offering distance education courses, enrollments and course offerings, degree and certificate programs, as well as technologies used to deliver distance education courses.

Key Findings

Institutions and Enrollments

Evidence suggests that distance education is becoming an increasingly visible feature of postsecondary education in this country. This report provides descriptive information about all 2-year and 4-year postsecondary education institutions that offered distance education in 1997–98, including enrollments in distance education courses at those institutions. Analyses of institutions and enrollments are presented by institutional type and size. Information is also included about enrollments by the level of course offerings (undergraduate or graduate/firstprofessional). Results of the 1997–98 PEQIS survey indicate that:

  • About one-third of the nation's 2-year and 4- year postsecondary education institutions offered any distance education courses during the 12-month 1997–98 academic year, and another one-fifth of the institutions planned to start offering such courses within the next 3 years. About half of the postsecondary institutions did not offer and did not plan to offer distance education courses in the next 3 years (table 2).
  • Distance education was more likely to be conducted by public institutions; 78 percent of public 4-year institutions and 62 percent of public 2-year institutions offered distance education courses, compared with 19 percent of private 4-year and 5 percent of private 2- year institutions. Distance education was also strongly related to institutional size; distance education courses were more likely to be offered by medium and large institutions than by small institutions (table 2).
  • There were an estimated 1,661,100 enrollments1 in all distance education courses, and 1,363,670 enrollments in college-level, credit-granting distance education courses, with most of these at the undergraduate level (table 5). About half of the institutions that reported offering distance education courses in 1997–98 reported 300 or fewer enrollments in those courses (figure 1).

Course Offerings

Comprehensive information about the courses available through distance education and enrollments in those courses has not been widely available. To address this gap in the knowledge base, this report provides information about total courses and college-level, credit-granting courses offered through distance education by all postsecondary institutions. Analyses of course offerings are presented by institutional type, general field of study, and instructional level of the course (undergraduate or graduate/firstprofessional). According to the 1997–98 PEQIS survey:

  • An estimated 54,470 different distance education courses2 were offered, most of which were college-level, credit-granting courses (49,690) (table 6). About half of the institutions that offered distance education courses in 1997–98 offered 15 or fewer different distance education courses, with 23 percent offering 1 to 5 courses (figure 2). Public 2-year and 4-year institutions combined offered about 8 out of 10 of the distance education courses offered (table 6).
  • The two fields in which more institutions that offered distance education courses offered college-level, credit-granting distance education courses were the general field of English, humanities, and the social and behavioral sciences (70 percent of institutions) and the field of business and management (55 percent of institutions) (table 7).
  • The general pattern was for institutions to offer for-credit distance education courses more at the undergraduate than at the graduate/first-professional level. The exceptions were in the fields of education, engineering, and library and information sciences, where more college-level, creditgranting distance education courses were offered at the graduate/first-professional level than at the undergraduate level (table 7).

Degree and Certificate Programs

While taking individual courses through distance education has the potential to increase access to postsecondary education among those who traditionally have not had access, it is the possibility of completing degree and certificate programs solely through distance education that offers the potential for the most dramatic changes in access and opportunity. This report presents information about the prevalence of distance education degree and certificate programs in all postsecondary institutions by institutional type, level of the degree and certificate programs, and general field of study. The 1997–98 PEQIS survey indicates that:

  • Eight percent of all 2-year and 4-year postsecondary institutions offered collegelevel degree or certificate programs that were designed to be completed totally through distance education. Among the 34 percent of institutions that offered any distance education courses in 1997–98, 25 percent offered distance education degrees or certificates. Among all postsecondary institutions, public 4-year institutions were more likely than other types of institutions to offer distance education degree and certificate programs (table 13).
  • In 1997–98, 2-year and 4-year postsecondary institutions offered an estimated 1,230 distance education degree programs and 340 distance education certificate programs (table 15). Postsecondary institutions offering distance education programs were more likely to offer graduate/first-professional degrees or certificates than undergraduate degrees or certificates (table 15). Graduate/firstprofessional degree programs were most likely to be offered in business and management, the health professions, education, and engineering (table 14).

Distance Education Technologies Employed

Changes in the types of technologies available for delivering distance education, including changes in the capabilities of networking technology and the rise of the Internet, have played a role in the adoption of distance education by postsecondary institutions. This report provides information about the types of technologies employed by all postsecondary institutions to deliver distance education in 1997–98. To provide insight into the dynamic nature of distance education technologies, the report also includes information about institutions' plans for the use of different technologies in the next 3 years. According to the 1997–98 PEQIS survey:

  • While postsecondary education institutions employed a wide variety of distance education technologies during 1997–98, more institutions that offered distance education courses were likely to use several types of video technologies and the Internet-based technologies than any other modes of delivery included in the survey. Specifically, asynchronous Internet instruction, two-way interactive video, and one-way prerecorded video were used by more institutions than any other distance education technologies (table 17).
  • Two-way interactive video was more likely to be used by public 4-year institutions (80 percent) than by any other type of institution, and by public 2-year institutions (53 percent) more than private 4-year institutions (29 percent). One-way prerecorded video was more likely to be used by public 2-year institutions (62 percent) than by either public or private 4-year institutions, and by public 4- year institutions (44 percent) more often than by private 4-year institutions (26 percent). The Internet technologies, however, were generally about equally likely to be used by the various types of institutions, ranging from 16 percent to 22 percent for synchronous Internet instruction, and from 57 percent to 61 percent for asynchronous Internet instruction (table 17).
  • Institutions that offered distance education in 1997–98 or that planned to offer distance education in the next 3 years reported that they planned to start using or increase their use of Internet-based technologies and twoway interactive video in the next 3 years more than any other types of technologies. This suggests that Internet and interactive video technologies will be a growing mode of delivery among postsecondary institutions (table 18).

Tuition and Fees

While distance education can be seen as a cost savings approach to providing postsecondary education, the costs in developing, implementing, and delivering distance education courses can also be substantial. One might expect that institutions might pass these costs or cost savings on by charging different tuition and fees to students enrolled in distance education courses. To examine this issue, this report provides information about how tuition and fees for distance education courses compare to those for traditional campus-based courses. Analyses are presented by institutional type. Findings from the 1997–98 PEQIS survey indicate that:

  • About three-quarters of institutions that offered any distance education courses in 1997–98 charged the same tuition for these courses as for comparable on-campus courses. Public 2-year institutions were more likely than public or private 4-year institutions to indicate that tuition charges were always the same for distance education and on-campus courses, with 90 percent of public 2-year institutions giving this response (table 20).
  • Two-thirds of institutions offering distance education courses in 1997–98 reported that they did not add special fees to their collegelevel, credit-granting distance education courses that were not added to on-campus courses (figure 4).
  • Overall, 57 percent of institutions are charging both comparable tuition and comparable fees for distance education and on-campus courses.

Changes in Distance Education Since 1994–95

While this report primarily presents findings on various aspects of distance education for all postsecondary institutions for 1997–98, an analysis of the data for the subset of higher education institutions allows trend comparisons with the previous NCES report on distance education. Changes in distance education since 1994–953 are presented in this report in terms of the percentage of institutions offering distance education courses, the number of distance education courses offered, the number of enrollments in distance education courses, the availability of distance education degree and certificate programs, and the technologies used to deliver distance education courses. Findings indicate that:

  • Between fall 1995 and 1997–98, the percentage of higher education institutions offering distance education courses increased by about one-third, from 33 percent to 44 percent (table 21). From 1994–95 to 1997– 98, the number of course offerings and enrollments in distance education approximately doubled (tables 22 and 23). And, although the percentages of institutions offering distance education degree and certificate programs were essentially the same in 1997–98 as in 1995, the number of degree and certificate programs that were offered nearly doubled (table 24). Taken together, these findings suggest that the expansion in distance education appears to be among institutions that have offered distance education for the past 3 years. These institutions have substantially increased the number of distance education courses, enrollments, and degree and certificate programs that they offer.
  • Among all higher education institutions offering any distance education, the percentages of institutions using two-way interactive video and one-way prerecorded video were essentially the same in 1997–98 as in 1995. The percentage of institutions using asynchronous Internet-based technologies, however, nearly tripled, from 22 percent of institutions in 1995 to 60 percent of institutions in 1997–98 (table 25)4.

Conclusions

This PEQIS report presents findings for the 12- month 1997–98 academic year about the status of distance education in all postsecondary education institutions. It also includes an analysis of trends in distance education since 1994–95 for the subset of higher education institutions. In the most general terms, it finds that distance education appears to have become a common feature of many postsecondary education institutions and that, by their own accounts, it will become only more common in the future. While findings from this report will help to inform stakeholders—including individuals considering a postsecondary education, faculty and administrators at postsecondary institutions, providers of technologies used for distance education, and policymakers at federal, state, and local levels—they do not address many of the questions about distance education. These questions include issues related to:

  • equity of access to postsecondary education,
  • the costs of developing and implementing distance education programs,
  • accreditation of and quality assurance in distance education programs,
  • copyright and intellectual property rights,
  • changes and challenges facing the role of postsecondary faculty, and
  • pressures on existing organizational structures and arrangements.

It is a dynamic time for postsecondary education institutions facing the opportunities and challenges brought by technological innovation. As Gladieux and Swail (1999) assert: given the fact that computer and related technologies are evolving so quickly—and new providers and brokers of higher education proliferating so rapidly—no one knows how traditional higher education will change.


1 If a student was enrolled in multiple courses, institutions were instructed to count the student for each course in which he or she was enrolled. Thus, enrollments may include duplicated counts of students.

2 If a course had multiple sections or was offered multiple times during the academic year, institutions were instructed to count it as only one course.

3 The first PEQIS study, conducted in fall 1995, sometimes asked for information about the current time frame (i.e., fall 1995), and sometimes asked for information about academic year 1994–95. Thus, both dates appear in the discussion of the results.

4 In 1997–98, the wording of the computer-based technologies was changed to more accurately reflect how these technologies are used. For this comparison, other computer-based technology (e.g., Internet) is considered to be approximately equivalent to Internet courses using asynchronous computer-based instruction.

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