The State of Online Education

Now is the time for the University of Washington to invest in online degree programs and leverage its unparalleled strengths in regional and national markets. But because regional peer universities and national competitors continue to invest substantially in online education, says Bryan Blakeley, assistant vice provost for digital learning innovation at UW Continuum College, UW has a limited-time opportunity.


Students are increasingly choosing online education when it’s available, Blakeley says. While college enrollment nationally peaked in 2010 at 21 million students, according to IPEDS, online education continues to grow:

  • Enrollment Swap: Total undergraduate enrollment in Washington state fell to about 326,000 students in 2019, down nearly 4,000 since 2012. But undergrads in online-only programs rose from about 25,000 students to over 36,000 students in the same period.
  • Courses: As of 2019, 38% of all higher education students nationwide were enrolled in at least one online course.
  • Close to Home: Two-thirds of online students nationally choose institutions located within 50 miles of their homes.

“Most of the students we’re serving are within the greater Puget Sound area,” Blakeley says. “That helps us think about how we market and which programs we can most effectively offer here.”


Nationwide, students say they choose online programs based on reputation, flexibility, innovation and more. Looking at national surveys, here are the trends we’ve been seeing in students:

  • Reputation: Online students are cognizant of their school’s reputation. The clout from a distinguished public university like the University of Washington is a real driver for online students, Blakeley said.
  • Flexibility: Online students prioritize flexibility over brand or reputation, so if the UW doesn’t offer an online or asynchronous option for a program, students may look elsewhere.
  • A Focus on Careers: Post-traditional students make up at least half of all college-going students. Many say they choose online learning as a path to get their first professional job, start a new career, earn a promotion or increase their salary.
  • Returning Students: Current cohorts also include many returning students who have already completed some college but have not finished a degree.
  • Quality and Innovation: Today’s students expect a high-quality learning experience. It’s important to provide up-to-date learning environments that include engaging approaches to teaching, as well as seamless, mobile-friendly learning-management systems.

 “It’s about creating deep engagement with students — both with their peers and also with the instructor — and having tools that allow you to do that,” he says.


Institutions similar to the UW are investing in their online education portfolios, and enrollment data shows students are seizing the new opportunities.

As of 2019, 33% of students were enrolled in at least one online course at national public doctoral universities. Online course enrollment was lower at institutions in Washington state — just 15% of students statewide, and just 9% at the UW.

Other institutions are leading the way in providing online education in the state, Blakeley says. As of 2019:

  • University of Washington: About 4,000 degree-seeking students took at least one online course, with less than a thousand students studying fully online.
  • Central Washington University: About 11,000 students took at least one online course and nearly 3,000 studied fully online across 20 different programs.
  • Washington State University: About 7,000 students took at least one online course, and more than half enrolled in one of their 34 fully online undergraduate and graduate programs. WSU is making sizable investments in online education, Blakeley said, and may reach 15,000 online students in the next few years.

Blakeley noted that online enrollments are also growing elsewhere:

  • West Coast: The California State University system enrolled 144,000 students statewide in at least one online course as of 2019. Oregon State, an avid adopter of online education, had about 15,000 students taking at least one online course in 2019.
  • National: Among East Coast and Midwest institutions, Penn State is a leader, with 46,000 students taking at least one online course.
  • Going ‘Global’: Some state universities are growing their brands by acquiring or partnering with private, providers. For example, the University of Arizona, Purdue University and the University of Massachusetts now offer online programs through a “global” campus or an affiliated provider.

In addition, several schools located in other states are drawing large numbers of online-only students from Washington. As of 2019, more than 46,000 students in Washington state were seeking fully online degrees elsewhere:

  • Western Governors University: The competency-based online education provider based in Utah enrolled 14,000 students from Washington, out of a total of 135,000 fully online learners at the institution.
  • Early National Movers: Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University, recognized national brands, each drew about 2,000 full-online students from Washington.
  • For-Profits: Educational providers like Grand Canyon University and the University of Phoenix also enrolled about 2,000 fully online students each from Washington state.

“Online education is here to stay,” Blakeley says. “Right now, the UW is underrepresented. If it isn’t the UW that takes advantage of these trends, it might be somebody else that maybe does not have the same concern for Washington state students as we do.”


The marketplace is moving fast, but the UW can leverage two advantages if it wants to become the region’s premier online education provider, Blakeley says.

Foremost, he says, student demand for education at the state’s flagship public university remains high. The UW’s renowned reputation is also likely fending off meaningful competition from private providers, such as the University of Phoenix or Southern New Hampshire University, Blakeley says.

What’s just as important, Blakeley says, is that online education in Washington is largely driven by the state’s public universities. When Washington residents enroll in online-only undergraduate programs in Washington, 93% choose public institutions, compared to 71% nationally.

“We have some excellent opportunities in online education. But I don’t think that we can wait forever to realize them.”

Questions about working with UW Continuum College to develop online courses and how they might benefit your academic programs? To find out more about digital learning innovations and resources you can use, contact your partner success lead (PSL).