Online College Programs Drive Spring 2024 Enrollment Growth

Online programs have reported enrollment gains in four of the last five spring semesters.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on June 18, 2024
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  • Enrollment in primarily online institutions (POIs) and multistate college programs rose 3.8% in spring 2024.
  • Online enrollments are increasing overall, but gains vary by degree level.
  • Distance education graduate schools saw the biggest increase in spring 2024.
  • Private, nonprofit institutions also reported a significant enrollment rise.

Online college programs contributed significantly to spring 2024 enrollment gains.

The National Student Clearinghouse reported that primarily online institutions (POIs) and multistate college programs saw enrollments rise 3.8% compared to spring 2023. This is the fourth spring semester in the past five years that these institutions have reported an enrollment bump from the year prior.

POI enrollment gains nearly mirrored the overall year-over-year enrollment gains (3.9%) reported.

This growth shows the importance of distance learning for higher education institutions.

Still, online enrollment makes up a relatively small portion of all enrollments in the U.S. Per the Clearinghouse report, there were approximately 17.8 million students enrolled at U.S. institutions in spring 2024, and just 1.3 million students enrolled in a POI or multistate program. That constitutes just 7.4% of all enrollments.

Online Enrollments Vary by Degree Level

Online enrollments are trending upward overall, but gains vary greatly depending on degree level.

The number of online graduate students rose sharply during the spring 2024 semester, especially compared to the two years prior. Undergraduate enrollment among online students also rose in 2024, but not as precipitously.

Still, overall graduate student enrollment from online programs lags undergraduate enrollment.

  • Undergraduate, total online students: 987,000
  • Graduate, total online students: 323,000

Among all programs, both in-person and online, undergraduate enrollment rose 2.5% in spring 2024 and graduate enrollment rose by 3%.

Private Institutions Report Online Gains

Private, nonprofit institutions awarding four-year degrees saw the biggest increase in online enrollments in spring 2024.

Clearinghouse reported that these institutions saw a 9.9% increase in enrollments compared to spring 2023. Public four-year institutions and all other institution types reported declines in distance education enrollment.

Despite gains in four of the last five spring semesters, private, nonprofit institutions' enrollment of online students has yet to surpass that of other. This category of institution likely primarily consists of students at for-profit institutions and associate degree programs.

  • Public, total online students: 48,000
  • Private, nonprofit, total online students: 543,000
  • Other, total online students: 712,000

These figures further suggest that private institutions have invested the most in distance learning.