Distance Learning

Distance Learning

Why Online Learning is a Game-Changer

Competition with online options could slow higher education’s meteoric price increase.

28% of college students in the 2014-15 academic year took at least one class online, with 5.8 million distance education students enrolled in fall 2014. Given that online enrollment has increased by millions over the past decade, it seems a safe bet that online education platforms will continue to grow. But what will the future of education look like – and how influential will distance learning be in shaping that destiny? To find the answer, we’ve taken a close look at the reasons eLearning is such a major player in the education landscape.

College Studetns Taking at Least One Online Class

Growing Demand

Could distance learning disrupt the brick-and-mortar education monopoly?

Here’s what we know: enrollment growth for distance learning classes has begun to outpace that of on-campus programs. This is partly due to the relationship between enrollment and the economy. When the economy is weak and job prospects are scarce, more students opt for continuing education and a postponed job search; when the economy is strong, graduates tend to enter the workforce sooner.

America's GDP Growth Rate
America's GDP Growth Rate vs Online Class Enrollment

Online learning statistics defy that trend. Despite an improving economic climate, online enrollment has continued to increase (if more slowly) while enrollment in on-campus programs dropped.

It’s clear that demand for distance learning options is on the rise. But some sources suggest support for online programs at traditional institutions has actually decreased. Resources for some programs are increasingly inadequate, unable to keep up with growing interest from new and current students. This trend is sort of baffling. Why would traditional colleges and universities hesitate to fund programs that generate so much student interest?

Affordability vs. Quality

Can an online degree save millennials from crippling debt?

The class of 2015 graduated with the largest student loan debts in history due to a whopping 56% increase in the average debt amount from 2004 to 2014. Starting out with large loan balances, often at high interest rates, delays graduates’ ability to buy a home or car, or to start a small business.

This trend undercuts both big-picture economic growth and the social mobility a college degree once offered its holder. Considering these unpromising financial prospects, it isn’t surprising that today’s students are searching for more affordable alternatives.

Such alternatives are increasingly practical. The Georgia Institute of Technology now offers a low-cost MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) option for its Master’s in Computer Science track with promising results. Currently, it costs 3x less than the same degree on-campus. The accredited online University of the People offers tuition free degree tracks – charging only small fees to assess exams that total about $4,000. Compare that to the $24k+ average cost of a traditional bachelor’s degree!

What else can you buy with $24,000?

Distance learning degree programs can cut student loan debt in half, or better. That’s a huge financial advantage for new grads. Better yet, 95% of educators in the 2014 Distance Education Survey by ITC contend that online courses are "equivalent to or superior than traditional courses."

If interest in high-quality, low-cost education options continues to rise, distance learning programs could lower the cost of competing traditional schools – a welcome change for students on campus and off.


With online degree programs, higher education is more attainable than ever.

One might argue that the rising demand for eLearning options is an indictment of colleges’ "ivory tower" mentality. Faced with the prospect of paying dearly for a degree that hardly guarantees a return on their investment, American students are rethinking traditional education – and exploring other options.

Flexibility is another advantage of online coursework. eLearning may appeal to working adults seeking a career change, as well as students who don’t want to – or can’t – take out student loans. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can lower institution costs and end the need for class size caps, thus increasing course availability for students.

2015 saw a promising beginning for colleges that began to offer MOOCs for college credit. Still, acceptance is still far from universal. 66% of ITC survey respondents said they "have no plans" to add MOOCs to their school’s curriculum.

In a job climate where maybe 75% of employers feel a degree earned online is valid, acceptance of eLearning degree programs seems to be on the rise. Competition within the increasingly crowded education marketplace has led to the evolution of the "empowered consumer-learner" who can choose not only what degree to pursue, but how to experience it.

Why Distance Learning Matters

Distance learning offers a more affordable, more accessible education option than similar programs at a traditional four-year university. Student interest is there. Acceptance is rising. But debates about online programs’ efficacy are ongoing. The data comparing graduation rates for online and traditional programs remains mixed and inconclusive.

Perhaps eLearning isn’t ideal for all students. Perhaps its biggest impact is in more underrepresented student groups – among working adults; young parents; students in other countries; and students with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Students for whom the cost and time commitment of a traditional degree would be prohibitive may now study wherever and whenever they can, within their financial means. eLearning could be a major step toward educational equality – and for that fact alone, it’s well worth exploring.