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Who Uses Distance Higher Education?


Today’s distance learners, using computers and high-speed transmission lines to virtually connect with
professors and other students from around the world, owe a debt of gratitude to the farmers of the past.
That’s because the development of distance higher education came about as a way to give rural learners better access to higher education.

That’s right – distance learning has a long history. In fact, college level distance education in the USA is more than 100 years old.  What’s new about distance learning is not the idea, but the type of student it serves and the number and type of higher education institutions that are using it to reach new types of students.

In the 1880s, publicly-funded land-grant universities operating in rural areas of the United States decided to help farmers master more scientific and efficient farming techniques. However, it wasn’t easy—or in many cases even possible—for farmers to leave their fields to go study.

So, in 1892, Pennsylvania State University became one of the first colleges in the United States to launch an aggressive mail correspondence program. Agricultural workers read textbooks, then mailed their completed assignments back to Penn State faculty for grading.

Penn State’s experiment in distance higher education was so successful that the university expanded its educational outreach across the United States.

In 1998, Penn State opened a new online campus, known as the World Campus. The World Campus now offers more than 50 online degrees and certificates at both the graduate and undergraduate level. The World Campus’ distance learners live in every corner of the globe.

Penn State’s motto, “A century of commitment to distance learning,” affirms how established and long-standing distance higher education is in the United States.


Students who have trouble getting to traditional schools still use distance learning. Those who are most likely to utilize distance learning today include rural learners; military personnel (who are mobile and require a campus that is equally mobile); and single mothers (average age 36).

Single mothers who work full time have historically relied on distance higher education as a way to access education without having to leave their children alone in the evenings or on weekends.

In fact, a 2007-08 survey of distance learners by Primary Research Group found that almost 60 percent of college-level distance learners in the United States are female.


Since the 1990s, the master’s degree has been the most prevalent degree offered via distance learning in the United States. In 1995,’s National Survey of Online MBAs tracked three accredited online MBAs (master’s of business administration). Today, profiles 168 graduate business schools offering almost 400 different distance online MBA degrees.

The MBA is the most popular and prevalent distance online degree earned in the United States.

But, according to the Sloan Foundation’s report, “Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning,” the typical online college kid may be getting younger—and seeking more entry level, career-specific education.

The associate degree is materializing as the prime growth area for online education development in the coming decade. More than half the growth in distance higher education in the last five years of the Sloan survey came from two-year colleges, which focus on delivering associate degrees and career certificates in high-demand job areas such as business, IT, justice and healthcare.

The field has clearly shifted from farming for today’s online distance learners.