Online and Incomplete

Community college students who enroll in distance courses are more likely to fail or drop out than are those in in-person classes, study finds.
July 19, 2011

Online education is all the rage with politicians looking for ways to expand the capacity of public colleges to educate more students -- on a budget. Tim Pawlenty, the Republican presidential candidate, pushed online education while he was governor of Minnesota. Rick Perry, the Texas governor who may soon become a Republican presidential candidate, has suggested that web-based instruction could be the key to offering degrees to students that are much less expensive than those in the state today.

But a new study urges caution to those who believe that online education is a panacea for educating more community college students. The study finds that students who enrolled in online courses -- controlling for various factors that tend to predict success -- were more likely to fail or drop out of the courses than were those who took the same courses in person. Notably, there was not a gap in completion between those enrolled in hybrid and in-person courses.

Further, the students who took online courses early in their community college careers were slightly but statistically significantly less likely than were other students to come back for subsequent terms. And students who took higher shares of coursework online than did their peers were slightly but statistically significantly less likely either to finish a degree or certificate or to transfer to a four-year institution.

The study was by Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University. Their analysis is based on a large cohort -- the 51,000 students who entered community and technical colleges in Washington State in 2004. And the study is similar to one on students in Virginia, adding to the researchers' belief that the trends are real and potentially troublesome in that increasing numbers of community college students are enrolling online.

The study notes that enrollments of community college students in online courses have grown at a rapid pace, from just over 700,000 in 1997-98 to 5 million in 2006-7, with every indication that the numbers have continued to soar. And the authors note that there are good reasons for community colleges to embrace online education, especially "to accommodate the need for flexibility among their student population, many of whom hold part- or full-time jobs."

In keeping with that theme, the authors don't suggest any abandonment of online education. Rather, they urge community colleges in Washington State and elsewhere to consider steps that would improve the chances of success of some online students (while encouraging others to try face-to-face instruction). Among the recommendations:

  • Require students to take an assessment of their readiness for online instruction. (Washington State encourages, but does not require such participation.) Further, the assessment might do more, the authors write, for students who are found to be unlikely to succeed. For instance, it might automatically point them to courses they could take in person.
  • Add training for faculty members on online pedagogy.
  • Improve student support services. The authors note that many community colleges offer around-the-clock technical support for online students, but offer tutoring and academic online services only during limited hours. The same scheduling reasons that encourage community college students to enroll online mean that they need flexible hours on a range of services, the authors write.


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