UND President Mark Kennedy highlighted the importance of online education and the university's place in the industry during a presentation to local business people Tuesday morning.

Kennedy spoke to members of the Grand Forks Economic Development Corp. and Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce member.

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The university announced a partnership with education company Pearson to push two master's-level courses starting next year.

Kennedy noted that with the new partnership with Pearson, UND and its faculty and staff will still control the content of the classes.

"Some people say that somehow (the online classes) are a lesser quality (than a traditional class)," Kennedy told the group. "You're going to find this is the highest quality."

Kennedy added that the online courses will prop up and add to the already diverse set of classes offered by the school.

The number of online-only students has gone up over the past few years at UND, with about 3,000 students enrolled in distance education exclusively in 2013 and another 1,823 students who were enrolled in some distance education and some traditional courses.

As of 2017 those numbers have increased, with about 3,500 students enrolled in online courses exclusively and nearly 2,800 enrolled in a combination of online and traditional classes.

As the number of online students goes up, the number of traditional students is trending downward. In 2013, there were around 10,300 traditional students at UND, that number has since declined to around 8,000 students.

Despite the increase in online-only students and decrease of traditional students, overall enrollment numbers have remained fairly stable with numbers only decreasing slightly from 15,143 in 2013 to 14,406 in 2017.

The statistics follow national stats, which show a declining number of traditional students and an increase in students who are taking classes exclusively online or a mixture of both.

According to a recent report by the Babson Survey Research Group, the number of students who were taking at least one distance education course in 2015 was 29.7 percent, a number that has continued to rise from 25.9 percent in 2012. The survey included data from all active, degree-granting institutions of higher education in the United States that are open to the public.

Kennedy said that the university wants to be a leader in online education in the region and the country, noting that the market is a national, if not international market.

"What's become more clear to me in the recent years is that the window in online is closing," he said. "There will be some number, but a relatively smaller number of universities that are doing online at scale with unique offerings. (Those universities) will significantly benefit from that (and) among the most significant benefits is the ability to leverage your fixed cost."

Kennedy said the state does not want to be a "net exporter of students," but a "net importer of students," so the state can tap into all of the available talent to add to the workforce.

"Online is a very important initiative, not just for the University of North Dakota, but for the state (as well)," Kennedy said.