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Community college students who pursue online courses exclusively are less likely to earn associate or bachelor’s degrees than their peers who enrolled in some in-person classes, according to a new study.

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A longtime higher ed paradox is this: community colleges open doors to educational opportunities, particularly for underrepresented, low-income or underprepared students, but most students who enter these institutions do not earn degrees. Past studies have produced sometimes-conflicting results on whether online coursework helps community college students progress toward degrees. Many of those studies, however, have not distinguished between students who pursue one or two online classes and those who take all their courses online.

A new working paper from the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida suggests that Black, Hispanic and low-income community college students who take some, but not all, of their courses online increase their likelihood of completing an associate or bachelor’s degree. The online-course-percentage sweet spot for degree completion falls somewhere between “more than zero” but “less than one-quarter.” Also, among all community college students, those who pursued online courses exclusively were less likely to earn associate or bachelor’s degrees than their peers who enrolled in some in-person classes.

The added flexibility that online courses provide helps community college students overcome the time constraints many face from work and family responsibilities, said Justin Ortagus, the study’s author and director of the Institute of Higher Education. “But my study shows that you can have too much of a good thing, and the benefits of engaging in some online courses turn into burdens when students enroll exclusively in online coursework.”

Black community college students who enrolled in some online courses (fewer than 50 percent of their courses) were more likely (between 11.6 and 23 percent) to complete their associate and bachelor’s degrees than those who studied fully in person, according to the paper. Hispanic students with this enrollment pattern experienced similar results (between 6.2 and 22.4 percent more likely to earn degrees), as did low-income students (between 9.4 and 18.5 percent more likely). In the pooled group of students and all subgroups (Black, Hispanic and low-income students), the strongest outcomes happened when students’ academic programs included some, but less than one-quarter, online coursework.

Students who enrolled exclusively in online courses were 15.8 percent less likely than students who studied fully in person to earn associate degrees, according to the study. The results were more pronounced for Black students (18.1 percent less likely), Hispanic students (17.8 percent less likely) and low-income students (16.8 percent less likely) seeking associate degrees. In all cases, enrolling in some but not all online courses increased the likelihood of obtaining associate degrees.

“We know the importance from other research of creating a sense of belonging for students, especially for students of color and students who have faced structural and historical disadvantages in higher education,” said Shayne Spaulding, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization that provides data and evidence to help advance upward mobility and equity. “Engaging students and creating a sense of connection is hard to do in the virtual space.”

To provide the nuanced analysis, Ortagus gained access to and drew from 10 years of transcripts from Sunshine Community College, a pseudonym for a high-enrollment community college. (The data set included more than 40,000 transcripts.) The U.S. government does not currently require community colleges to report percentages of students’ online and in-person coursework. In the paper, Ortagus calls on policy makers to demand more transparent reporting by delivery method and to enhance accountability for exclusively online programs.

“Many students facing time or location constraints may not be able to enroll in some face-to-face courses due to schedule conflicts, but enrolling in a few online courses would allow these students to earn additional credits,” Ortagus said. “In addition, community college students who only take face-to-face courses may be forced to wait a semester or two to enroll in certain high-demand courses due to space constraints, but online courses can remove this barrier and allow students to continue to make progress toward their degree.”

Earlier studies have found that underprepared students fare worse online, which has prompted questions about which students stand to benefit from online program funding. In one study, community college students in California, many of whom are low income and underrepresented, were 11 percent less likely to pass a course if taken online as opposed to in person.

“It’s important for colleges to offer a variety of modalities for students, help each student make informed decisions about whether and how online learning could benefit that student and be proactive about intervening and providing support to students who struggle in key courses, whether they are online or face-to-face,” said Shanna Smith Jaggars, director of the Ohio State University Student Success Research Lab. The interplay of societal and demographic factors can shed light on whether online options serve as an advantage or disadvantage.

“An older, full-time-working mom with a strong academic background may do just fine in either an online or face-to-face course, but a young man who is the first in his family to attend college may perform much more poorly in an online course than in a face-to-face one,” Jaggars said.

To parse when and whether online community college courses are beneficial requires insight into not only students’ demographic backgrounds but their intended fields of study.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, an online program will be so much less expensive to deliver,’ but there are a lot of other, different costs that need to be considered,” Spaulding said before providing examples: online students need internet access, and some need specific hardware or software. Those studying IT, for example, need state-of-the-art computers matched to the industries for which they are preparing. A student preparing to work as a nurse who can draw blood will need an in-person component. Also, faculty members need professional development opportunities that support best online teaching practices, which costs money and can be challenging to deliver to adjunct faculty.

“There are ways to design programs more intentionally to make sure that they’re meeting students’ needs,” Spaulding said. Community college administrators and faculty members need to “really think about what student-centered design means in the online context and how to consider issues of equity.”

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