In post-secondary education, students taking online courses have lower course completion rates but higher degree completion rates

A couple of weeks ago our blog noted a study showing that in California community colleges, students had lower completion rates in online courses than in face-to-face courses. The post was based on an article in US News & World Report from The Hechinger Report. Now comes an important addition to the story via these same sources, pointing out that in community colleges, students who take distance education classes (that are mostly online) are more likely to finish their degrees than students who don’t take any online classes. From the original study, by researchers at the University at Albany and Furman University:

“…we hypothesized that community college students who participate in distance education in early semesters graduate at lower rates than students who do not. Contrary to expectations, the study found that controlling for relevant background characteristics; students who take some of their early courses online or at a distance have a significantly better chance of attaining a community college credential than do their classroom only counterparts.”

Further, the researchers controlled for student characteristics such that “this does not appear to be an effect of better, more motivated, or more academically prepared students self selecting into distance education.

In the US News article, the study’s main author calls it a “paradox” that students finish online courses at lower rates but then complete degrees at higher rates than average. But with further reflection this phenomenon is not so surprising. Many students, in both colleges and high schools, are choosing online courses because they are more convenient than the traditional courses. For college students, the face-to-face course may be less convenient because it requires commuting to a class whose timing interferes with job or family—not even accounting for lost commuting time. For high school students, in many cases the online course may be the only one available if the student attends one of the many high schools that doesn’t offer a wide range of courses. Even if students are less likely to complete a single online course than a single face-to-face course, the increased availability, flexibility, and convenience of the online courses makes them particularly helpful for students trying to complete a set of requirements for a degree.

Examining success rates in online courses is important for many reasons, including that understanding the issues keeping completion rates from being higher will help teachers and schools improve outcomes. But this latest article is a valuable reminder that passing the course is not the ultimate goal. For a high school student, the goal is usually graduating from high school ready for college or career. Online courses that increase access and opportunities help students achieve that goal, even if passing rates are lower than in face-to-face courses.