A 22 percent increase in online students was seen at Distance Degree Programs this fall compared to a year ago. The leap follows six years of 6 percent annual increases. This fall’s 563 new students raised the number of students served from 2,530 to 3,093.
 
The increase is divided almost evenly between students enrolled through DDP and students whose primary campus is Pullman, Spokane, Tri-Cities or Vancouver. Of the 3,093 students taking online courses, 842 are from one of the physical campuses.
 
The reason behind the increase is not entirely clear, but Muriel Oaks, dean of the Center for Distance and Professional Education, which includes DDP, said there are probably several factors.
 
“Campus-based students are clearly comfortable with technology, and more of them are taking advantage of the flexibility that online courses offer,” she said.
 
For the typical DDP student — working adults — the reasons are probably more varied, and include a weakening economy, increasing acceptance of online education, and gas prices.
 
“There’s general agreement that higher education enrollments increase during economic downturns,” said Al Jamison, a faculty member in the Department of Educational Leadership & Counseling Psychology. When the economy sinks, “people look to get more education so they’re better poised to get a job when the economy recovers, or to change ca reers,” said Debra O’Donnell, director of marketing, communications and recruiting for CDPE.
 
 Jamison suggested the bad-economy theory may be particularly applicable to online students, because they’re more integrated into the work force.
 
Meanwhile, “studies show people are more accepting of online education,” Oaks said, “and employers are also more accepting of online degrees, especially ones from traditional universities.”
 
The gas price theory says that as fuel costs rise, people choose online courses in order to avoid driving. But, as Oaks pointed out, many DDP students aren’t potential commuters. Most are busy working and raising children and have no time to attend campus classes, or they live outside a reasonable commute to a college or university.
 
Even new DDP student Vance Frost of Ephrata, who will save $4,000 a year on gas by not commuting, declined to call gas prices a deciding factor.
 
“Quality of education played a tremendous role as well,” said the 45-year-old graphic designer, citing “WSU’s reputation, the class offerings and the excellent customer service.”