Three-fourths of public colleges believe online courses are

Three-fourths of public colleges believe online courses are "critical" for long-term success.

The 2009 Sloan-C report on online education confirmed what campus officials have seen during the country’s economic downturn: Americans are flocking to web-based college classes.

The seventh annual study, based on responses from more than 2,500 colleges and universities and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, reported a 17-percent increase in online course enrollment, with more than one-fourth of U.S. college students taking at least one web-based class during the fall 2008 semester.

Three-fourths of campuses with online programs said demand has increased over the past year, and two-thirds of colleges that don’t offer web courses said students had requested online learning.

Last year’s 17-percent jump trumped 2008’s 12-percent increase in online class enrollment. Overall, higher education enrollment increased by 1.2 percent last year, according to the report.

Online course enrollment “really is what’s driving the growth of higher education in the U.S.,” said Elaine Allen, research director at Babson College’s Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. Allen helped compile the Sloan-C report.

Still, despite the massive gains in online enrollment in recent years, many college faculty members remain skeptical of online education, according to the Sloan-C report. Only a third of chief academic officers surveyed in the report said their faculty “accept the value and legitimacy” of online learning, a number that has remained steady since 2002.

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