NCES Blog

National Center for Education Statistics

Distance education: Learning in non-traditional settings

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

Distance education courses and programs provide students with flexible learning opportunities. Distance education has become increasingly common at the postsecondary level. Many postsecondary institutions offer at least some online courses, while other institutions exclusively offer online programs and courses taught exclusively online. NCES collects data on distance education through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS).

IPEDS data on distance education provides information on the number and percentage of students participating in distance education at different types of institutions. In fall 2013, about 4.6 million undergraduate students participated in distance education, with 2.0 million students (11 percent of total undergraduate enrollment) exclusively taking distance education courses. Of the 2.0 million undergraduate students who exclusively took distance education courses, 1.1 million students (6 percent of total undergraduate enrollment) were enrolled in programs located in the same state in which they resided, and 0.8 million (4 percent of total undergraduate enrollment) were enrolled in a different state.

At the postbaccalaureate level, some 895,000 students (31 percent of total postbaccalaureate enrollment) participated in distance education in fall 2013, with 677,000 students (23 percent of total postbaccalaureate enrollment) exclusively taking distance education courses. Of the students who exclusively took distance education courses, 273,000 students (9 percent of total postbaccalaureate enrollment) were enrolled in programs located in the same state in which they resided, and 362,000 students (12 percent of total postbaccalaureate enrollment) were enrolled in a different state.


Percentage of undergraduate students at degree-granting postsecondary institutions who participated exclusively in distance education courses, by control and level of institution: Fall 2013

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 311.15.


The percentage of undergraduate students participating exclusively in distance education programs differed by institutional control. In fall 2013, a higher percentage of students at private for-profit 4-year institutions exclusively took distance education courses (58 percent) than did students at any other control and level of institution. Similarly, at the postbaccalaureate level, the percentage of students who exclusively took distance education courses in fall 2013 was higher for those enrolled at private for-profit institutions (79 percent) than for those at private nonprofit (19 percent) and public institutions (16 percent).

Data on distance education in IPEDS is at the institution level, and therefore does not provide data on how distance education may differ by student characteristics. However, NPSAS contains both institution- and student-level data and can therefore be used to examine whether participation in distance education differs based on student’s demographic characteristics. For example, findings from NPSAS show that a higher percentage of older adults enrolled in distance education classes than younger adults. In 2011–12, a higher percentage of undergraduates 30 years old and over took distance education classes or their entire degree program through distance education (41 percent and 13 percent, respectively) than undergraduates 24 to 29 years of age (36 percent and 8 percent, respectively) or undergraduates 15 to 23 years of age (26 percent and 3 percent, respectively).

Findings from NPSAS also show that enrollment in distance education was higher in 2011-12 than in previous years in which these data were collected. A higher percentage of undergraduates took distance education classes in 2011–12 (32 percent) than in 2007–08 (21 percent) or in 2003–04 (16 percent). Also, a higher percentage of undergraduates took their entire degree program through distance education in 2011–12 (6 percent) than in 2007–08 (4 percent) or in 2003–04 (5 percent).

Enrollment in distance education will likely continue to grow as additional institutions offer individual courses, or even entire degree programs, online. Drawing on new technologies, the scope of distance education activities have expanded to reach millions of students. Current and future NCES data collections will continue to monitor this trend.

Reading for fun: Using NAEP data to explore student attitudes

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

The National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) is well-known as one of the key resources for information about the academic progress and performance of U.S. students. But did you know that NAEP also collects other important data on students’ behaviors and attitudes? For example, NAEP Long-Term Trend reading assessments have asked students how often they read for fun. Using these data, we can see how the frequency of reading for fun differs by student age and over time. These data can also be examined in conjunction with students’ reading assessment scores on NAEP.

A higher percentage of younger students reported that they read for fun almost every day than older students. In 2012, about 53 percent of 9-year-olds reported that they read for fun almost every day, compared to 27 percent of 13-year-olds and 19 percent of 17-year-olds. Conversely, about 27 percent of 17-year-olds said they never or hardly ever read for fun compared to 22 percent of 13-year-olds and 11 percent of 9-year-olds. For 17-year-olds, the percentage who reported that they read for fun almost every day decreased over time, from 31 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2012.


Percentage of students reading for fun almost every day, by age: 1984 and 2012

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Long-Term Trend Reading Assessments. See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 221.30.


There were also differences in reading assessment scores by frequency of reading for fun. In 2012, students who were 17-years-old and read for fun almost every day had higher scores (302 points) than those that never or hardly ever read for fun (272 points). The same was true for 13-year-olds (276 vs. 249 points, respectively) and 9-year-olds (226 vs. 208 points, respectively). Note, however, that comparisons like these between reading assessment scores and frequency of reading for fun cannot be used to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. 

Other questions about students’ reading behaviors and attitudes are included on the main NAEP assessments. For example, in addition to a question about the frequency of reading for fun, the 2015 questionnaire included the following items:

  • About how many books are there in your home?
  • How often do you talk with your friends or family about something you have read?
  • Reading is one of my favorite activities (with response options: this is not like me, this is a little like me, and this is a lot like me)

Questions like these can be compared with students’ assessment scores to examine how attitudes, behaviors, and achievement may be related.

The growing field of statistics

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted October 20th as World Statistics Day. Over 130 countries and areas of the world joined in the inaugural World Statistics Day celebration. October 20, 2015 is the second time World Statistics Day will be celebrated. This day is intended to highlight the important contributions statistics and statisticians make to a wide array of national and international activities.  The theme for World Statistics Day 2015 – “Better data. Better lives.” – reflects the important role that statistics plays in helping businesses, governments, and the public make informed decisions.

Careers in statistics are varied, and cover a range of areas that include politics, economics, finance, and governance. As the interest in data-driven decision making grows, so too does the demand for statisticians.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the job growth for statisticians will be much faster than the average overall job growth. As a reflection of that growth, the number of degrees conferred in the field of mathematics and statistics has increased over the last decade. For example, in 2002–03 there were 12,505 bachelor’s degrees conferred in mathematics and statistics and in 2012–13, there were 20,453 degrees conferred in this field. During this period, the number of degrees conferred also increased for master’s degrees (from 3,620 to 6,957), and doctor’s degrees (from 1,007 to 1,823). 


Bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics conferred by postsecondary institutions, by sex of student: 2002-03 through 2012-13SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 325.65.


While the number of degrees conferred in mathematics and statistics increased for both males and females over the past decade, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees conferred to males in 2012–13 was higher than the percentage for females (57 vs. 43 percent). Similarly, a higher percentage of master’s degrees in this field were conferred to males in 2012–13 (60 vs. 40 percent), and the same was true for doctor’s degrees (71 vs. 39 percent).

By collecting and disseminating data on the number of degrees conferred in different fields, NCES can help researchers, policy-makers, and the public to determine whether the changing demands of the workforce are likely to be met.

To find out more information about World Statistics Day, please visit https://worldstatisticsday.org/

Did you know that NCES has a Kids' Zone?

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

Join us in celebrating World Statistics Day on October 20, 2015!

While most of NCES’ products are designed for education stakeholders such as teachers, school administrators, and researchers, the Kids' Zone is designed for use by some of our most important consumers - students! The Kids' Zone contains features such as a dice game that helps students learn about probability and statistics, links to online tools where students can find information on their school, and a graph creation tool.

According to the graph above, which element forms the second greatest portion of the earth’s crust?

  1. Oxygen
  2. Silicon
  3. Aluminum
  4. Iron
  5. Calcium

The above question is an example of an 8th grade mathematics question that can be answered using the Dare to Compare feature of the NCES Kids' Zone. This feature of the NCES Kids' Zone allows you to choose questions (5, 10, 15, or 20) from different subject areas (Civics, Economics, Geography, History, Mathematics, or Science) asked at different grade levels depending on the subject selected (4th grade, 8th grade, 9th grade, or 12th grade). After you answer the questions, your answers are scored and you can see how you compared to students in that age range either nationally or internationally. For example, on this question 87 percent of U.S. 8th graders selected the correct response of Silicon on a past NAEP assessment.

Create a Graph can be used by teachers and students. In fact, Create a Graph is one of the most frequently visited pages on the NCES website. Using this tool, you can create bar graphs, line graphs, pie graphs, area graphs, or you can choose an XY plot in order to plot individual points. For example, everyone in class could answer a series of questions using Dare to Compare. Then, the class could calculate what percentage of the class responded correctly to certain items and graph that percentage along with the percentage of students who answered the question correctly in different regions of the U.S., or different countries. We encourage you to join us in celebrating World Statistics Day on October 20, 2015 by planning a fun activity, such as the one suggest above, using the NCES Kids' Zone. Follow us on Twitter @EdNCES for other ideas and announcements about World Statistics Day.

There are a lot of fun features on the NCES Kids' Zone – so go ahead and explore! 

Behind the degree: Direct measures of cognitive skills or reports of highest degree earned

By Heidi Silver-Pacuilla

Categories of educational attainment – or highest degree earned – are often used in social science research as an indicator of a person’s knowledge and skills. This measure is objective and readily available, easily understood by survey respondents as well as by consumers of research and survey data, strongly tied to policies (such as those promoting high school graduation and college completion rates), and widely used in the labor market by employers. Moreover, strong connections between educational attainment and positive life outcomes, such as employment, earnings, health, and civic engagement, are well established.

Yet, this measure is an imprecise indicator of the amount of knowledge and skills an individual acquired during the years of education it took to complete the degree. It also masks variation across individuals and programs of study. In addition, adults continue to acquire skills and knowledge from a variety of sources and activities over their lifetimes after completing a degree, while on the job or through employer-sponsored training, continuing education, family and household management, hobbies and interests, etc. Adults also lose fluency with skills that are not put to regular use.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey[i] provides direct measures of working-age adults’ cognitive skills based on their performance on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving tasks set in real-life contexts. Performance is reported on a scale of 1-5 for literacy and numeracy and a scale of 1-3 for problem solving. It pairs these measures with a background questionnaire that asks about the use of skills at work and in daily life, work history, and other social, behavioral, and demographic indicators.


Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC literacy scale, by highest level of educational attainment: 2012Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC literacy scale, by highest level of educational attainment: 2012

# Rounds to zero
NOTE: Percentages of adults age 16 to 65 by highest level of educational attainment appear in parentheses. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2012.


The direct measures of cognitive skills offer researchers the ability to study actual skills rather than only using attainment of a particular degree as a general indicator of skills, and to investigate how those assessed skills relate to behaviors and life outcomes. To illustrate how directly measured skills and educational attainment are not always aligned, we can compare direct performance to highest degrees earned. In the United States, of all adults who have attained only a high school degree, 20% performed in the lowest levels (Level 1 and Below Level 1) of literacy, while 7% of adults with an associate’s degree and 5% of those with a bachelor’s degree performed at this level. At the same time, the results showed that 6% of adults with no more than a high school diploma, 14% with only an associate’s degree, and 24% with a bachelor’s degree have very high literacy skills, at Level 4 or 5 on the same scale. See the full range of educational attainment and skill performance in literacy in the chart above.

Findings such as this can help inform policy, interventions, and communication strategies to better meet the needs of the recipients.

To read more about direct measures versus educational attainment, see Chapter 8 of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills – Reader's Companion.


[i] The PIAAC survey is coordinated internationally by the OECD. NCES implements PIAAC in the United States. Results were first released in October 2013 with data from 23 countries. It is a household survey administered by trained data collectors to a nationally-representative sample of adults, ages 16 through 65, in each country, in the official language(s), and in most cases, in respondents’ homes on a laptop computer.

In the United States, the survey was first administered in 2012 and additional results, based on an expanded sample, will be released in 2015-2016. To learn more about the U.S. administration and reporting of the survey, as well as related data tools, see https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/.