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Portrait of a young male student, sitting at his desk studying for school or following an online class on his digital tablet. He is taking notes in his notebook.

A new study finds that taking exclusively online courses had a negative influence on bachelor’s degree completion across all student subgroups by race and ethnicity and completion of any degree (associate or bachelor’s).

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Recent surveys have seen a shift in opinion and understanding of online learning, with 52 percent of Americans saying online programs are equally as valuable as their on-campus counterparts, while 12 percent even believe online learning is more valuable than on-campus programs.

Three researchers from the University of Florida’s Institute of Higher Education published a working paper in November gauging the academic outcomes of students who learn exclusively in an online setting versus their peers who receive face-to-face instruction.

The paper finds, on average, students enrolled in online courses complete degrees at a lower rate and those enrolled at for-profit institutions are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.

The background: More institutions have developed online degree programs in recent years, while some—such as the University of California system—have banned exclusively online degrees.

An October report from California Completes identified six concerns held by institutional stakeholders regarding online learning, which include rigor and quality of the programs.

The fundamental question around online program offerings remains how—or if—they positively improve learning. Online education has been touted as a method to save learners time and money as well as accommodate distance learning, but there has been limited research around the long-term outcomes of online students compared to their in-person peers, according to the report.

Prior research has compared online learners versus their face-to-face peers enrolled in the same course, not focused on those exclusively taking courses virtually, which researchers sought to gauge better.

In general, students who enroll in some online courses are less likely to perform well on short-term, course-level outcomes compared to their in-person peers, but one study found online learners enroll and persist at higher levels, including completing an associate degree or transferring to a four-year institution.

Racially minoritized students are also less likely to persist or achieve high academic marks in online instruction, which researchers theorize may be attributed to systemic disadvantages in K-12 education for these students and those who are low-income.

Students who do not complete courses in person have less engagement with their faculty members, which can push them to be self-reliant and self-directed in their learning.

The report: To understand the relationship between fully online degree programs and degree completion, the University of Florida researchers created three research questions:

  1. To what extent does enrolling in an exclusively online degree program influence students’ likelihood of degree completion?
  2. Do results vary according to students’ demographic or background characteristics?
  3. Among exclusively online students, what is the relationship between enrollment at a specific institution type and students’ likelihood of degree completion?

The study relies on data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study for 2012 to 2017, tracking students enrolled between 2011 and 2012 who participated in three rounds of data collection. Researchers focused on the small group of students who’d enrolled exclusively in an online degree program as of 2017 (around 1,980 of all 22,500 students). Among online students, 46.8 percent were enrolled in an associate degree program, 41.7 percent were in a bachelor’s program and 9 percent were in a certificate program.

The majority of students (52.1 percent) were enrolled in a for-profit four-year institution.

The most popular majors among students at four-year institutions were health-related fields of study (22.4 percent), business-related majors (21.1 percent) and STEM-related majors (16.3 percent).

The results: Researchers found enrollment in exclusively online degree programs had a negative influence on bachelor’s degree completion across all student subgroups by race and ethnicity and completion of any degree (associate or bachelor’s).

Further, students who attended a for-profit four-year institution were 11.9 percentage points less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree compared to students at other types of four-year universities. Students who attended selective four-year institutions were marginally more likely (8.1 percentage points) to complete a bachelor’s degree compared to their peers at less selective colleges.

Students studying for an associate degree at a for-profit institution were similarly disadvantaged (3.5 percentage points) if they expected to earn a two-year degree or higher. However, other online-only students in an associate degree program had negative, but not statistically significant, trends.

Similarly, those enrolled in associate degree programs at for-profit two-year institutions had a higher likelihood of stopping out before earning a degree.

Considerations for higher ed: Based on the researchers’ findings and overall literature around online education, the working paper offers some recommendations for higher education stakeholders and policymakers.

  • Acknowledge that face-to-face learning still has value. While colleges and universities are considering expanding online offerings for students, researchers see benefits in having students take one or some online courses, but the value of face-to-face learning should not be forgotten.
  • Use personal engagement as a retention strategy. Personal interactions with faculty and peers can also predict students’ sense of belonging and likelihood of success, which online students can lack due to limited spaces for interaction. Colleges and universities should consider how to create more avenues for interpersonal relationships.
  • Understand the nuance of online students. A disproportionate number of online-only learners are facing time and location constraints that can make them less likely to graduate compared to their peers.
  • Invest in wraparound supports. Many racially minoritized students or those attending institutions without adequate academic supports struggle more in an online environment.
  • Prioritize quality. Online programs can be scaled quickly and capture high numbers of learners, so institutions should know and use best practices in development and delivery of high-quality online degree programs.

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