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Distance Education in Higher Education Institutions
NCES 98062
October 1997


Technology-based distance education is emerging as an increasingly important component of higher education. Publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education regularly feature articles about the distance education efforts of various higher education institutions and systems, states, and consortia. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 6, 1994), while distance education to date has primarily concentrated on part-time students, students who cannot travel easily to campus, and courses in selected graduate programs (such as engineering and business administration), distance education specialists and academic policymakers expect technology to help higher education institutions provide a wide range of programs, including undergraduate degree programs, to larger proportions of the student population.

Many states have active distance education programs. For example, the Education Network of Maine, an independent arm of the Maine university system, televises college courses to 11 regional centers and other sites throughout the state and helps make available 85 courses and 14 degree programs, which served about 2,900 students in the fall of 1995 (Chronicle of Higher Education, May 31, 1996). Colorado took a somewhat different approach when it established Colorado Electronic Community College as the state's 12th community college. Colorado Electronic Community College was created when the state's other 11 community colleges joined forces with Mind Extension University (now known as Jones Education Connection), a for-profit institution that uses cable television and videotapes to deliver courses from more than 30 colleges and universities. The focus of the new institution is to reach people in rural areas of Colorado who are far from other colleges (Chronicle of Higher Education, December 8, 1995). Among the other notable education networks for distance education run by states and higher education systems are EdNet in Oregon, the Iowa Communications Network, the TeleLinking Network in Kentucky, and BadgerNet in Wisconsin.

In the West, the governors of 15 states (and one U.S. territory) are developing a "virtual university" called the Western Governors University. This virtual university will have no campus and will rely heavily on computers and other technology such as interactive video to deliver instruction. Other states and institutions have joined together into cooperatives and consortia to support and offer distance education. Examples of such cooperatives and consortia include the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, a project of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which consists of 12 large institutions, including Pennsylvania State University, the University of Iowa, Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Illinois (Chronicle of Higher Education, December 8, 1995). A number of large universities (e.g., the University of Maryland, Duke University, and Purdue University) offer complete master's degrees in business through the Internet.

In recent years, 60 community colleges have joined with 22 public television stations around the country to offer associate's degree programs through distance education telecourses under a program called "Going the Distance" (Higher Education & National Affairs, American Council on Education, August 15, 1994). This program is part of an initiative of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aimed at expanding career opportunities for working adults and increasing work force competitiveness through adult education services. PBS has offered telecourses through PBS stations and local colleges since 1981, but students could not use them to completely fulfill degree requirements. Enrollment in PBS telecourses has grown from 55,000 in 1981 to about 400,000 in 1996 (information from the Adult Learning Service, PBS, August 27, 1997). "Going the Distance" focuses on reaching students who could not otherwise attend college and work toward a degree (The Washington Post, August 4, 1994).

While those examples highlight the growing importance of distance education for higher education, they do not provide information about distance education on a national scale. This PEQIS study was designed to provide nationally representative data about distance education course offerings in higher education institutions. The study obtained information about the percentage of institutions that currently offer and that plan to offer distance education courses in the next 3 years; distance education course offerings, including the types of technologies used to deliver distance education courses and the sites to which such courses are directed; distance education enrollments and completions; characteristics of distance education courses and programs; distance education program goals; future plans for distance education course offerings; and factors keeping institutions from starting or expanding their distance education offerings.

For this study, distance education was defined as education or training courses delivered to remote (off-campus) locations via audio, video, or computer technologies. For purposes of this study, the following types of courses were not included: (1) courses conducted exclusively on campus, although some on-campus instruction might be involved in the courses that were included; (2) courses conducted exclusively via correspondence, although some instruction might be conducted through correspondence in the courses that were included; and (3) courses in which the instructor traveled to a remote site to deliver instruction in person.

The following institutional characteristics were used as variables for analyzing the survey data:

  • Type of institution: public 2-year, private 2-year, public 4- year, private 4-year. Type was created from a combination of level (2-year, 4-year) and control (public, private). Two-year institutions are defined as institutions at which the highest level of offerings is at least 2 but less than 4 years (below the baccalaureate degree); 4-year institutions are those at which the highest level of offering is 4 or more years (baccalaureate or higher degree).1 Private comprises private nonprofit and private for-profit institutions; these private institutions are reported together because there are too few private for-profit institutions in the sample for this survey to report them as a separate category.
  • Region: Northeast, Southeast, Central, and West, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) definitions of region. The states in each region are as follows:
    • Northeast: Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
    • Southeast: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
    • Central: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
    • West: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Size of institution: less than 3,000 students (small); 3,000 to 9,999 students (medium); and 10, 000 or more students (large).

The survey was conducted in fall of 1995 by the National Center for Education Statistics using the Postsecondary Education Quick Information System (PEQIS). PEQIS is designed to collect limited amounts of policy-relevant information on a quick turn-around basis from a previously recruited, nationally representative sample of postsecondary institutions. PEQIS surveys are generally limited to two to three pages of questions with a response burden of 30 minutes per respondent.2 The survey was mailed to the PEQIS survey coordinators at 1,276 2-year and 4-year higher education institutions.3 Coordinators were told that the survey was designed to be completed by the person(s) at the institution most knowledgeable about the institution's distance education course offerings. The unweighted survey response rate was 94 percent (the weighted survey response rate was 96 percent). Data were adjusted for questionnaire nonresponse and weighted to provide national estimates. The section of this report on survey methodology and data reliability provides a more detailed discussion of the sample and survey methodology. The survey questionnaire is reproduced in appendix B.

All specific statements of comparisons made in this report have been tested for statistical significance through chi-square tests and t-tests adjusted for multiple comparisons using the Bonferroni adjustment and are significant at the 95 percent confidence level or better. However, not all statistically different comparisons have been presented, since some were not of substantive importance.

1Definitions for level are from the data file documentation for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Institutional Characteristics file, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

2Additional information about PEQIS is presented in the methodology section of this report.

3Higher education institutions are institutions accredited at the college level by an agency recognized by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and are a subset of all postsecondary education institutions.



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