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"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandela

Online Community College Courses Show Paradoxical Results

By Carole Hornsby Haynes   |  November 15, 2015   National Center for Policy Analysis

Community colleges are attended by 45 percent of the nation’s undergraduates.  Currently the community college sector is under fire for low graduation rates. Only 25 to 30 percent of students who begin their studies at a community college complete their degrees or transfer to a four-year college.  Enrollments are decreasing.

To cut costs while attempting to boost enrollment, community college leaders tout the flexibility of online courses.

Since many community college students are older and must juggle jobs and parenting, the flexibility of these online courses would seem to be an ideal solution. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012 more than 27 percent of students at public two-year colleges were taking some or all of their classes online. Most of the students are not in fully online degree programs but rather take some face-to-face classes. Students say they prefer to take easy courses online and the more difficult courses in traditional classes so they can get immediate answers to their questions.      

Sadly, the statistics for completion of online community college courses show dismal results.

In April 2015 the a UC-Davis study was presented at the American Educational Research Association.  The study, which includes 217,000 students from the 2008-2012 academic years in the California community college system, looks at the entire range of online courses offered at 112 public community colleges throughout California.

Across the board of subject areas, the students selecting the online versions were the strongest academically.  Those who struggled with online learning more than others included males, younger students, black students, and those with lower grade point averages.

Of those taking online courses, only 79% completed their course as compared with 85% in face-to-face courses.  Only 56% passed their online course while 63% passed their face-to-face course. However, if a student were to take a course in person and then take the same course online, the student was 11% less likely to both finish and pass the course online. 

Earlier studies in Virginia and Washington state, conducted in 2011 and 2013, also found dismal outcomes for community college students who take courses online.  Two other studies, in 2012 and 2014, reported the same result.

Surprisingly, there is another side to the story.  Although students are more likely to fail online courses, they finish their degrees if they take the courses.  A study by Peter Shea at the University of Albany SUNY found that online community college students are 25 percent more likely to complete their two-year associate’s degree or certificate program and to graduate sooner than students who did not take any online courses.    

Rather than this being a positive sign for online instruction, the anomaly appears related to whether a student is able to enroll in a timely fashion in a traditional bricks-and-mortar class. Because of budget cuts, many community colleges have eliminated multiple sections of courses while cutting some entirely.  Students waiting for a traditional class to open up – as well as one that fits their schedules – may very well wait for a long time.  For many, this jeopardizes their graduation – at least being able to graduate in a timely fashion. Online courses resolve this problem.

In spite of the negative research findings, community college administrators continue to advocate online classes to increase their enrollments and to cut costs.  The question is whether they want to finance the expansion of online courses to help only a small segment of their student population -- those students who are the most prepared and likely to succeed – to increase their numbers of graduates.

Undoubtedly, the need to boost their graduation statistics will win out.

The real losers are those struggling students who badly need the support of face-to-face interaction with an instructor to increase the possibility of their obtaining a degree or certificate.

Copyright 2015 Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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