Success rates slightly lower online at community colleges, studies find

Students less likely to finish, pass, or receive a high grade

Students are less likely to complete the online version of a course, according to the latest of five studies questioning the value of online classes, Jill Barshay writes for the Hechinger Report's "Education by the Numbers" column.

For the most recent study, researchers at the University of California-Davis analyzed the completion rates of students who opted for in-person or web-based versions of the same class. Researchers looked at data from online classes in a wide range of disciplines from every community college in California across a four-year period. The study is not yet published but was presented at a conference earlier this month.

Students who took a class online were 11% less likely to finish and pass than those who took it in-person—despite usually being stronger students, researchers concluded.

Online students were also less likely to receive a "B" grade or higher than in-person students of similar academic and economic backgrounds.

Barshay acknowledges that the flexibility of online classes can make them seem ideal for community college students, many of whom are older, work while attending school, and have children.

However, online classes can also demand more from students, especially in terms of time management. Barshay uncovered studies from 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014—all finding that community college students were less successful in online classes.

Improving outcomes for adult students in online courses

Nevertheless, Barshay reports, industry leaders seem poised to expand online education at community colleges. She points to a recent Inside Higher Ed survey finding that "50% of two-year-college presidents agreed that more courses could be moved online without adversely affecting students at their institutions" (Barshay, "Education by the Numbers," Hechinger Report, 4/27).

The takeaway: Community college students are slightly less successful in online courses, concludes a fifth study in five years. For more information on improving student outcomes, see our Student Success Insights blog.


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