Online university skews W.Va. enrollment figures

Editor’s note: This article is reprinted with the permission of the Charleston Daily Mail. It originally appeared on Aug. 1, 2012.

The number of Hispanic students enrolled in West Virginia colleges more than quadrupled between 2005 and 2010, according to a recently released report.

That translates to 4,759 more Hispanic students.

But Census data shows West Virginia’s entire Hispanic population grew by just 8,676 in a period twice that long — from 2000 to 2010.

The report by the Southern Regional Education Board said West Virginia’s Hispanic student growth rate was the best in the nation.

The data also shows West Virginia leading the pack for increases in white, “other” and male students.

And the report shows the state as third nationally in growth among numbers of black and female students.

The figures would seemingly warrant a pat on the back for university recruiters across the state.

But the figures don’t tell the whole story.

An online-only private university that moved its corporate headquarters to West Virginia and received accreditation during that time frame has wildly skewed the numbers, said Angie Bell, interim vice president of the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

 

“There’s a real easy answer for this: APUS,” Bell said.

The American Public University System is an online education conglomerate that oversees two institutes: American Public University and American Military University. Both have massive online enrollment, Bell said.

When the company moved its corporate headquarters from Virginia to Charles Town in 2002, those numbers eventually made their way into West Virginia statistics.

The university system currently reports having “119,000+” students. Of that, 1,268 actually live in West Virginia. That would be about 1 percent of total enrollment.

“This is one clear instance with skewed information,” Bell said.

Without APUS enrollment figures, the state’s Hispanic student enrollment would have increased by about 75 percent from 2005 to 2010, according to data Bell provided.

Data for total enrollment, enrollment of male and female students and enrollment of various racial groups was similarly skewed, said Dr. Joe Marks, director of Education Data Services for the group that conducted the enrollment study.

APUS’ data is included in figures since 2007, Marks said. The school did not receive its accreditation until 2006 and did not report enrollment data until fall of 2007.

“They weren’t part of the game until they got their accreditation,” Marks said.

The U.S. Department of Education compiles enrollment data every year. Because its database requires locations for students and APUS doesn’t have satellite or branch campuses, APUS must report all of its students as though they were taking classes in West Virginia, said Brian Muys, a spokesman for APUS.

He said the database shows that APUS had fewer than the “119,000+” that it claims on its website.

The Department of Education database shows a figure closer to 40,000 students for the fall 2010 enrollment. Muys said that represents the number of students who took a course between Aug. 1 and Oct. 31 of that year.

This skewing of a state’s statistics is not unique to APUS. Other online schools like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, which is headquartered in Iowa, inflate enrollment numbers for those states as well, Muys said.

“We are aware that our online enrollment numbers may inflate the overall growth of (West Virginia’s) numbers, but are also aware that most important policy organizations know that the way (the U.S. Department of Education) reports online enrollments distorts the numbers for many states, particularly when compared to states without an institution serving a large online population,” Muys wrote in an email.

The reporting system has been slow to recognize online universities, Marks said. He said the system didn’t include an “online only” option until 2011.

Due to this lag, he said data collectors across the country have had trouble separating

online and traditional student enrollment figures. “There are now some codes …

that identify around 33 institutions whose enrollment probably shouldn’t be included in the states where the schools have administrative centers,” Marks wrote in an email.

Marks said the only way he has learned about such discrepancies is through outside notification. When he hears about and researches potential errors, he’s sure to provide footnotes explaining why numbers seem out of kilter.

With most universities increasing or starting to offer online courses, Marks said the reporting system could remain muddled for a while.

“Everybody’s doing online stuff now, so you’re never going to be able to determine who’s on campus and who’s online only,” Marks said.

Paul Hill, chancellor of the state Higher Education Policy Commission, said it is up to his and similar organizations to clarify the problems with this data. He believes recently passed legislation will give the commission more oversight for APUS and other private universities.

Hill said with more control the commission would be better positioned to present accurate data. The figures also could give the false impression that APUS is having a large economic impact on the Charles Town community itself, Hill said.

While the university system is contributing some money in terms of taxes, it doesn’t play the same local economic role as traditional brick-and-mortar institutions.

“Yes, there’s certainly some impact by having the headquarters here … but most of those students are located elsewhere,” Hill said. “It’s not the typical center of the community.”

Marks worried that the study could leave some decision makers misinformed. A politician could use the information to boast success of a program, he said. An organization could cite the data in a grant application. Businesses use enrollment or graduation statistics frequently to gauge a local workforce when considering whether to locate or expand in an area, Marks said.

“Does it really mean you have that many more business graduates in your state?” Marks said. “Well no, not if they’re in Korea or Afghanistan.”

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