The pandemic not only disrupted education temporarily; it also triggered permanent changes. One that is quietly taking place at colleges and universities is a major, expedited shift to online learning. Even after campuses reopened and the health threat diminished, colleges and universities continued to offer more online courses and added more online degrees and programs. Some brick-and-mortar schools even switched to online only.

To be sure, far fewer college students are learning online today than during the peak of the pandemic, when online instruction was an emergency response. But there are far more students regularly logging into their computers for their classes now than in 2019, according to the latest federal data. In fact, there are so many more that online enrollment hit a new post-pandemic milestone in the fall of 2022 when a majority – 54 percent – of college students took one or more of their classes online, a nearly 50 percent increase from the fall of 2019 when 37 percent of college students took at least one online class.

The sheer numbers are staggering: more than 10 million college students were learning online in the fall of 2022. Compared to before the pandemic, an additional 1.5 million students were taking all of their courses online and 1.35 million more students were taking at least one course online — even as the total number of college students fell by more than a million between 2019 and 2022.

“Online has become more the norm,” said Phil Hill, a consultant and market analyst of education technology in higher education, whose newsletter alerted me to the new milestone. “It’s almost like exclusive face-to-face instruction is becoming the exception.”

The numbers come from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, known as IPEDS, which released fresh data for 2022-23 in January 2024. (Colleges are required to report masses of figures to the Education Department every year in order for their students to be eligible for federal student loans.) Hill extracted the online learning figures from the database and wrote about them in a Jan. 21, 2024  newsletter, “Fall 2022 IPEDS Data: Profile of US Higher Ed Online Education.”

This column is largely based on Hill’s analysis, but buttressing the evidence for continued growth in online learning is newer fall 2023 data, released after the IPEDS data was made public and Hill’s report, from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the research arm of a nonprofit that assists colleges with their data reporting requirements. The Clearinghouse reported that student enrollment growth for the category covering primarily online institutions was twice as large as enrollment growth overall (2.2 percent versus 1.1 percent) between fall 2022 and fall 2023. It didn’t track online course taking at traditional colleges and universities.

Read the full article about online classes for college students by Jill Barshay at The Hechinger Report .