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Distance Education Enrollments Thrive at Public Colleges

Public colleges educate more students fully online than their for-profit counterparts.

While for-profit colleges get all the headlines for online enrollments, their public counterparts are actually enrolling more students in distance education programs.

In an analysis by WCET and Terri Taylor Straut, 48 percent of college students enrolled in distance education programs at public universities, numbering nearly 1.3 million, according to fall 2013 data from the National Center for Educational Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

By comparison, private for-profit colleges enrolled 32 percent of 2.7 million students, and private nonprofits accounted for 20 percent of distance education enrollment. Taken together, just over half of students enrolled in distance education programs chose a private option, and just under half picked a public option.

When it comes to students who take some distance education courses along with in-person ones, 87 percent of students choose public university classes. But more than half of students who take at least one distance education course primarily choose private, for-profit colleges.

WCET did caution that the data sets could pose some validity problems because of inconsistencies the previous fall in how institutions report distance education enrollments. As the reporting becomes more consistent each year, it will be easier to make comparisons and conclusions from the data.