Study links completion gains to taking (some) online courses
A longstanding paradox of higher education is that community colleges open doors to educational opportunities, especially for underrepresented, low-income, or underprepared students, but most students entering in these establishments do not obtain diplomas. Previous studies have produced sometimes conflicting results about whether online courses help community college students progress to degrees. However, many of these studies did not distinguish between students who take one or two courses online and those who take all of their courses online.
A new working paper from the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida suggests that black, Hispanic, and low-income community college students who take some, but not all, of their courses online increase their chances of earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. The sweet spot of online course percentage for graduation is somewhere between “more than zero” but “less than a quarter.” Additionally, among all community college students, those who exclusively took online courses were less likely to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree than their peers who enrolled in some in-person courses.
The added flexibility offered by online courses helps community college students overcome the time constraints many face due to work and family responsibilities, said Justin Ortagus, study author and director of the Institute. of Higher Education. “But my study shows you can have too much of a good thing, and the benefits of engaging in some online courses turn into burdens when students enroll exclusively in online courses.”
Black community college students who enrolled in some courses online (less than 50% of their coursework) were more likely (between 11.6 and 23%) to complete their associate and bachelor’s degrees than those who took studied entirely in person, according to the document. Hispanic students with this enrollment pattern achieved similar results (between 6.2 and 22.4% more likely to graduate), as did low-income students (between 9.4 and 18.5% more likely). In the pooled student group and all subgroups (Black, Hispanic, and low-income students), the strongest results occurred when students’ college programs included some, but less than a quarter, of online course.
According to the study, students who enrolled exclusively in online courses were 15.8% less likely than students who studied entirely in person to earn associate degrees. Results were more pronounced for black students (18.1% less likely), Hispanic students (17.8% less likely), and low-income students (16.8% less likely) seeking a degree of partner. In all cases, enrolling in some, but not all, online courses increased the likelihood of earning associate degrees.
“We know the importance of further research in creating a sense of belonging for students, especially for students of color and students who have faced structural and historical disadvantages in higher education,” said Shayne Spaulding, senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization. organization that provides data and evidence to help advance upward mobility and equity. “Engaging students and creating a sense of connection is hard to do in virtual space.”
To provide a nuanced analysis, Ortagus accessed and drew on 10 years of transcripts from Sunshine Community College, a pseudonym for a high-enrollment community college. (The dataset included more than 40,000 transcripts.) The US government does not currently require community colleges to report percentages of students’ online and in-person courses. In the document, Ortagus calls on policymakers to require more transparent reporting by delivery method and strengthen accountability for online-only programs.
“Many students facing time or location constraints may not be able to enroll in some face-to-face classes due to scheduling conflicts, but enrolling in a few online classes would allow those students to earn additional credits,” Ortagus said. “Additionally, community college students who only take face-to-face classes may have to wait a semester or two to enroll in some high-demand courses due to space constraints, but classes online can remove this barrier and enable students to continue progressing towards their degree.
Previous studies have found that under-prepared students perform less well online, raising questions about which students may qualify for online program funding. In one study, California community college students, many of whom are low-income and underrepresented, were 11% less likely to pass a course if taken online rather than in person.
“It is important for colleges to provide a variety of modalities for students, to help each student make informed decisions about whether and how online learning could benefit that student, and to be proactive in intervening and providing support to students who struggle in key courses, whether online or face-to-face,” said Shanna Smith Jaggars, director of the Student Success Research Lab at Ohio State University. The interaction of societal and demographic factors can help determine whether online options are an advantage or a disadvantage.
“An older mother who works full time and has a solid academic background may do very well in an online or face-to-face course, but a young man who is the first in his family to attend university may get far poorer results in an online course than in a face-to-face course,” Jaggars said.
Analyzing when and if community college online courses are beneficial requires understanding not only the demographic backgrounds of students, but also their intended areas of study.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, an online program will be so much cheaper to deliver,’ but there are a lot of other different costs that need to be considered,” Spaulding said before giving examples: Online students need Internet access, and some require specific hardware or software. Those studying computer science, for example, need state-of-the-art computers suitable for the industries they are preparing for. A student who is preparing to work as a nurse and who can draw blood will need an in-person component. Additionally, faculty members need professional development opportunities that support online teaching best practices, which costs money and can be difficult to provide to adjunct faculty.
“There are ways to design programs more intentionally to ensure they meet student needs,” Spaulding said. Community college administrators and faculty members need to “really think about what student-centered design means in the online context and how to consider issues of equity.”