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Earlier this month, California State University, Fullerton, asked its faculty to prepare for teaching all their fall classes online. It was one of the first major institutions of higher education to say that courses could be virtual to start the semester, depending on updates from health officials about in-person classes.  If it does go that way, CSU-Fullerton would benefit from the fact that it already offers a significant amount of online coursework. Even before the crisis, 35 percent of students took one or more classes online. And the California State University system as a whole is one of the biggest remote educators in the country; more than 150,000 students took online courses there in the 2018-19 academic year.

The coronavirus-induced shift of learning off campus was dramatic, but it accelerated a trend that has been growing over the past several years. From 2012, the earliest year data is available on distance learning, to 2018, the number of institutions where the majority of students took at least some coursework online has doubled, to more than 800, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The growth was fastest at the public four-year colleges, which went from 77 schools with a majority of undergraduates taking at least one course online to 160 schools — roughly 20 percent of public universities — from 2012 to 2018.

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A history with online education made this spring’s transition easier for some schools. Indiana’s Ivy Tech community college, for example, already had half of its nearly 70,000 undergraduates taking some courses online. When it went completely online after spring break, about 80 percent of students and instructors in face-to-face classes transitioned to an existing online class or began using content developed by system-wide curriculum groups, said the provost, Kara Monroe.

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“All of those tools are already in our toolbox,” Dr. Monroe said.

But many faculty members at traditional colleges struggled, not only with the technology required, but with the challenge of adapting classroom lessons to a digital medium. The University of Maryland’s online college, Global Campus, already operates over 90 percent of its classes remotely. Its instructors received pleas for help from friends at traditional schools, asking about the basics of teaching over the internet, according to Bob Ludwig, the school’s head of media relations.

From 2012 to 2018, the number of public four-year colleges, with a majority of undergraduates taking at least one course online rose from 77 schools to 160 schools — roughly 20 percent of public universities.

“‘How do I communicate my personality?’” Ludwig said some of them were asking. “‘When I speak to my students, I am a gregarious person. When I write, I write formally.’”

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On the other end of the digital divide are more than 1,000 colleges where 95 percent of students or more do no online coursework. While this number includes performing arts schools and religious institutions such as yeshivas, it also features Ivy League institutions and other costly private colleges that have had the luxury to remain mostly offline.

Boston University, a private institution of more than 18,000 students who nearly all take courses in person, sparked confusion with the rollout of its 2020-21 contingency plans. After some outlets interpreted the plans to mean the university would not reopen at all in 2020 if residential instruction were canceled, the school had to clarify that courses would continue to be taught remotely — a difficult transition for a school that taught less than 2 percent of undergraduates via online classes in 2018-19.

Early data points to schools like these taking the worst hits if colleges cannot return to in-person classes. A survey of parents of current undergraduates by the consulting firm Tyton Partners found 90 percent of them would not be comfortable with their child returning under the current circumstances of higher education. While 22 percent were uncomfortable with any online coursework, 44 percent said they would be comfortable with their child attending in those circumstances if it were at a substantially reduced price.

This story about online college enrollment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Pete D’Amato is the data visualization developer. He started his journalism career as a writer and photographer in Latin America, and his work has appeared in Americas Quarterly and online for Vice and...

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