Trends in Online Education: Going Back to School

By Evan Jones

A hundred years ago, education was in short supply and not in great demand. In 1910, only 13% of Americans held a high school diploma and fewer than 3% had a college degree. But times have changed and the educational demands of today’s workplace are, by comparison, overwhelming. By 2009, 87% of Americans were high school graduates and nearly 30% have a bachelor’s degree.1 That is an eight- to tenfold increase in a century, and this trend shows every indication of continuing.

It doesn’t end there. Every year there are more and more college graduates, and for good reason. Education is no longer merely an opportunity to get ahead, it is becoming a basic work requirement. In 2008, the median salary for a worker without a high school diploma was a mere $23,500 per year, and $30,000 for high-school graduates. For those with an Associates Degree, it was $36,000, and $42,000 for those with a Bachelor’s.2 These differences add up to a very large amount over a lifetime career.

More Americans are going back to school than ever before. Some wish to complete high school. Some have dropped out of college and want to return to finish up their degree. Some students left for “academic reasons”, some for personal reasons, including the intrusion of family responsibilities. Some dropped out for financial reasons. Others have already graduated college, but want an additional degree to advance themselves in their current field or to embark on a new career path. Some are military personnel starting the next chapter in their lives . There are also a great many educational programs to rehabilitate prison inmates and enable them to reintegrate into society.

Many are returning to school to obtain certification or licensing in a particular field. There may be required courses and/or “continuing education units” (CEUs) that represent ten hours of participation with qualified instructors. Such fields include engineering, education, nursing, and social work. Some simply want to take courses for personal reasons, and that number has not changed much over the years, but the increasing trend comes directly from those who want to return to school for reasons of professional advancement. From 1995 - 2005, work-related adult education jumped from 21.8% to 27.7% of the working-age population, a 27% increase in a single decade.3

It is difficult to determine exactly what percentage of re-entry students are doing so online. However, online enrollment was up by a million students from 2009 - 2010, a 21% one-year increase. Since 2002, it rose by 4 million, a 350% jump over 8 years.4 Online learning is more convenient and less expensive, and oriented toward students who have work or other obligations. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that an increasing share of those returning to school after a prolonged absence is opting for distance learning courses.

1 Percentage of persons age 25 and over and 25 to 29, by race/ethnicity, years of school completed, and sex: Selected years, 1910 through 2009, Digest of Education Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Education Institute of Educational Science, Table 8

2 What is the average income for high school and college graduates? Digest of Education Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Education Institute of Educational Science, National Center for Education Statistics, 2010

3 Percentage of population age 16 or older who participated in adult education activities, by age and type of activity: Selected years, 1995–2005, Digest of Education Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Education Institute of Educational Science, Adult Learning, Table 10-1

4 I. Elaine Allen, Jeff Seaman, Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010, Babson Survey Research Group, The Sloan Consortium, Nov. 2010, p. 2, 8


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