Data Visualization for Higher Education: What Mapping Can Tell Us about Online Program Marketing

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Author and analyst- Park Cram, Senior Research Consultant

One of the most exciting developments in education research over the last decade has been the rise of tools that support interactive data-based presentations. Traditionally, research firms have delivered static reports in the form of PowerPoint decks, spreadsheets, chart books, and the like. With these formats, it can be tough to strike the balance between comprehensive and insightful reporting.  By leveraging interactive reporting tools, however, Hanover Research is leading the way in empowering our clients to explore their data and truly understand the ways in which various data points relate to and inform key metrics.  

We provide one such example below in the form of a map that depicts distance education program enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This interactive map provides postsecondary institutions and policymakers with a convenient tool to help them understand the extent to which postsecondary institutions are serving online students residing in their state.

Advances in Distance Education Data

The rapid growth of online education has been a consistent topic of discussion and study for more than a decade; however, the availability of data has generally not kept pace with interest in the topic. Until recently, hard data were unavailable to validate the number of students earning degrees through online programs or to identify where they live and study.

IPEDS website

In the 2012-2013 academic year, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) began tracking distance education enrollment, asking institutions to report the number of distance education students enrolled. As a result, visitors to the NCES’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) site can  now access profiles of the distance education enrollment at each US institution, including a breakdown of enrollments by students’ degree level (undergraduate degree-seeking, undergraduate non-degree-seeking, and graduate) and home location (in-state, out-of-state, outside U.S., and unknown).

Hanover determined to make it easier for institutions to explore these new data. We also aim to answer, to the extent possible, where to find potential online students, if not in the institution’s own backyard.

We analyzed and mapped the NCES’s new distance education data, along with data from IPEDS on the total number of postsecondary students in each state, with a focus on two measures:

  1. The percentage of degree-seeking undergraduate students enrolled in four-year institutions (as defined by IPEDS) in the state that are enrolled exclusively in distance education courses and live outside the state.
  2. The percentage of degree-seeking undergraduate students enrolled in four-year institutions in the state that are enrolled exclusively in distance education courses and live within the state.

National Leaders in Online Distance Education

As the map shows, the overall distance education market is dominated by a few large institutions that serve students nationwide, not just those in their home state. The University of Phoenix, based in Arizona, stands out as the largest distance education provider by a wide margin, with over 200,000 undergraduate distance education students. As a result, more than half of the degree-seeking undergraduate students enrolled in all of Arizona’s four-year institutions combined are enrolled in distance education programs. Few of these students are Arizona residents. The only other state where more than 50% of students are enrolled online is Iowa—the home of Ashford University (68,000 online undergraduates) and Kaplan University’s Davenport (flagship) campus (34,000 online undergraduates). West Virginia—home to the American Public University System (47,000 online undergraduates)—is not far off the mark, with distance education students accounting for over 40% of the state’s undergraduate enrollments at four-year institutions.

A few high-population states, such as New York, Illinois, and Florida, are also home to institutions that do not account for as many of their states’ four-year undergraduate enrollments as Ashford University and the University of Phoenix, but which nonetheless support many online students. Florida also stands out for the number of institutions located in the state with significant distance education enrollments. The state has six different institutions with at least 5,000 degree-seeking undergraduates enrolled in distance education programs, whereas most other states have only one or two such institutions.

Looking beyond our nation’s borders, the institutions we examined rarely reported online undergraduate program enrollment by students living outside of the United States. Notably, Fort Hayes State University in Kansas reported that 3,600 students located outside of the US were enrolled in its undergraduate-level distance education programs in 2012-13. No other institution reported more than 200 such enrollments.

Leaders in Same-State Online Distance Education

There are fewer institutions focused on serving in-state, or “same-state,” students through their distance education programs. Maryland stands out as an outlier in this respect. The University of Maryland’s University College enrolls nearly 20,000 same-state distance education students as undergraduates, making it the largest institution in terms of same-state students by a wide margin (the next institution is the University of Phoenix, with just under 8,000 enrolled undergraduate students from within Arizona). In South Dakota and Alaska, same-state distance education students also account for a relatively high proportion of all students in the state, though the states’ smaller populations mean that the absolute numbers are not as impressive.

What state has the most same-state distance education enrollments? The answer is Florida, with nearly 56,000 residents enrolled in undergraduate distance education programs at four-year institutions in the state. Meanwhile, Ohio has more same-state distance education enrollments than California (24,000 students versus 16,000), despite having less than a third of the number of adult residents in 2012.

The state with the fewest same-state distance education enrollments (excluding the District of Columbia) was Rhode Island, with only 242 students. Relative to state population, California, again, has few students enrolled online in state-based programs. The need for more online program options has been a particular point of contention surrounding the University of California recent regent’s committee meeting, with Governor Jerry Brown advocating for more online course options to help mitigate budget shortfalls in the system.

The Future of Online Distance Education

As colleges’ online education offerings expand, the current trends will evolve. Will the four-year sector continue to be dominated by private institutions serving students nationwide, while public institutions serving in-state students remain more influential in the two-year sector? Conversely, will public four-year institutions adapt to serve more of their residents? Which institutions will succeed in attracting online students located outside of the United States? Perhaps most important, how much more data will be available about this important student population in the coming years?

The NCES’s new distance education enrollment dataset represents a great step forward, but there is much we can still learn about where these students live and the extent to which local and regional institutions can and should serve their needs.

Map Source:


About Park Cram:

As a Senior Research Consultant, Park is primarily responsible for advising Hanover staff on quantitative analysis projects. Since joining Hanover in 2008, Park has helped innovate Hanover’s market analysis methodologies, and he regularly performs complicated analyses, such as regression discontinuity studies, cluster analyses of potential customer segments, and consumer experience curve modeling projects.

As an undergraduate at California Institute of Technology, Park worked as a research assistant in the social science department, conducting laboratory experiments in economics and helping to manage the department’s survey data.


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