Outcomes for online community college students are both better and worse

'It's a bit of a paradox,' says one expert

Community college students are 25% more likely to graduate or earn a certificate sooner if they take online courses—even though they are less likely to complete those than a traditional class, Jill Barshay writes for the Hechinger Report.

Last week, Barshay wrote about the slightly lower success rates in online community college courses.  However, though students struggle more in the short term, it turns out that they do better in the long run, she says.

"It's a bit of a paradox," says Peter Shea, State University of New York, University of Albany associate provost of online learning. "They're doing worse at the course level, but at the program level—despite lower grades—they're finishing," he says.

In California, for example, 70% of community college students pass in-person classes, while just 60% complete online courses, according to Hans Johnson, a Public Policy Institute of California researcher. However, those who take part of their classes online are more likely to earn their associate degrees or transfer to four-year institutions.

The reason, Barshay says, is that "not everyone is failing." The 60% who do pass earn credit. They might have learned more in a traditional classroom setting, but they learned enough to move closer to graduation.

For community college students balancing work, family, and school, it may be difficult to find a required course with open seats offered at a time they can attend. As institutions cut sections and courses to manage budgets, it becomes even harder.

"The longer you're there without reaching completion, the more likely you're not going to end up finishing," says Johnson. "If you're really motivated and intent on getting out in a timely manner, online classes are almost essential," he says.

The question, says Barshay, is whether community college leaders should push forward with expanding online offerings.

"Online courses are helping the most prepared students who are most likely to succeed, not the struggling students who need the most help," she concludes (Barshay, Hechinger Report/U.S. News & World Report, 5/11).

The takeaway: While community college students are less likely to complete online courses, but they are more likely to graduate or earn a certificate if they enroll in some.

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