Online Classes and College Completion

Brian Taylor

March 13, 2012

The latest buzzword in higher education is "completion." It combines the idea of enrollment growth with what we used to call "retention"—that is, getting more students into college and then keeping them there long enough to graduate or (in the case of community-college students) transfer successfully to four-year institutions.

The completion concept is nothing new. We've been focused on increasing enrollment since I started in this profession more than 25 years ago, and we've also spent countless hours talking about how to do a better job of retaining and graduating students. The results have been mixed, at best. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, college enrollment grew by 9 percent in the 1990s and a whopping 38 percent from 1999 to 2009.

And yet, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan told PBS in a 2010 interview, completion rates have stagnated during those same two decades, with the United States slipping from first place to ninth among industrialized nations. "Other countries have passed us by," he said. "They're outworking us. They're outcompeting us." In other words, we've been doing a decent job of getting students in, but a poor job of getting them out with a degree in hand.

This time around, though, colleges may have added incentives to make retention a priority. President Obama himself has identified college completion as central to his economic agenda, calling education "the economic issue of our times" and vowing that America will once again lead "the world in college graduation rates by the end of this decade."

Moreover, governors and state education leaders have begun hinting strongly—and, in some cases, doing more than hinting—that future funds for colleges and universities may be tied to graduation rates rather than just to enrollment, as has traditionally been the case. As a result, community colleges, which are always looking to enlarge their slice of the pie and constantly fearful lest their already meager rations be further reduced, are rushing to get on board with the completion agenda.

I certainly agree that college completion is vital, both to our nation's economy and to our efforts to maintain an informed and engaged citizenry. Yet I'm concerned that some two-year institutions and systems might be taking the wrong approach, one that may ultimately prove counterproductive. Specifically (and predictably enough), many state systems have said that a key component of their plans to raise graduation rates involves increasing online offerings, despite strong evidence that online classes may have just the opposite effect.

For example, according to a report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Washington state's Student Completion Initiative includes plans to "redesign ... high-enrollment-gatekeeper and precollege courses into online classes." A position paper on college completion produced by the National Conference of State Legislatures applauds Montana, among other states, for "expanding online learning options" and creating "a virtual community college as a low-cost option to expand access." And in my own home state, the recently released Complete College Georgia plan calls for institutions to "increase the array of online programs ... to enable all students ... to effectively pursue college completion." Those are just a few examples of what appears to be a national trend.

At first glance, the idea seems to make a lot of sense: Surely if we make it easier for students to get the credits they need by offering as many classes as possible online, more will finish. And no doubt that approach is cost-effective, at least in the short run. We can increase access without having to spend money upfront for infrastructure—money that, incidentally, we don't have. We can also reach potential student populations whose only access to college courses comes via the Internet.

Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten that access and completion are not the same thing.

Simply getting more students to enroll isn't going to help much if too few of them ever finish. In fact, given Secretary Duncan's assertion that completion rates remain disappointing, even as enrollment grows, one might argue that we're setting many of those students up for failure.

To counter that argument, online enthusiasts point to a 2009 "meta-analysis" by the U.S. Department of Education that, they say, shows that online courses are not only cheaper and more convenient but also better. The report looked at 99 individual studies of online learning conducted since 1996 and concluded that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction."

Nice try. But that study has serious flaws, especially as it pertains to community colleges. In the "Effectiveness of Fully Online Courses for College Students: Response to a Department of Education Meta-Analysis," Shanna Smith Jaggers and Thomas Bailey of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University point out that only 28 of the 99 studies examined in the Education Department report focused on courses that were fully online. Furthermore, only seven looked at semester-long courses, as opposed to short-term online programs on narrow topics, "such as how to use an Internet search engine."

In other words, out of all the studies reviewed by the Education Department, only a handful dealt with the kind of fully online, semester-long courses that are being touted as a means of increasing college-completion rates.

Even more alarming, for those of us on the front lines at community colleges, is the fact that all seven of those studies were conducted at midsize or large universities, five of which were rated as "selective" or "highly selective" by U.S. News & World Report. Those are not exactly the kinds of places that typically attract at-risk students—the ones least likely to complete their degrees. Community colleges do attract such students, and in large numbers.

Moreover, in six of the seven studies, withdrawal rates were not even mentioned, meaning that the research gauged only how well students performed after completing the course. The studies didn't tell us anything about those students who didn't complete the course.

Two other studies by researchers at Columbia's Community College Research Center do shed light on the role that online courses play in college completion—and the news isn't exactly good.

The more recent of the two, as reported by The Chronicle in July 2011, "followed the enrollment history of 51,000 community-college students in Washington state between 2004 and 2009 [and] found an eight percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses." That comes on the heels of a 2010 study that reached similar conclusions about community-college students in Virginia: "Regardless of their initial level of preparation ... students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution."

Did you catch that? According to the Columbia study, community-college students who take online courses are actually less likely to graduate or transfer.

Is it possible that we're taking the wrong approach?

Increasing access to college through more online offerings may indeed help with the first part of the completion equation: enrollment growth. But if, as the Columbia studies clearly show, the most at-risk students are less likely to finish when they "attend" classes online, then for that group of students this approach may actually do more harm than good.

That's precisely what Jaggers and Bailey conclude in their response to the Education Department's analysis: "While advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher-education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students."

All of this reminds me of a television commercial I saw recently. I don't even remember what product or company was being advertised. I just remember that the gist was, "If you're tired of dealing with Web sites and automated phone systems, do business with us. We'll give you the personal touch. You can even talk to a live person." And I remember thinking, "Maybe this is the wave of the future. Maybe we've reached our saturation point with virtual communication, and the businesses that succeed in the next decade will be those that make you feel like a person interacting with another person rather than some disembodied collection of ones and zeroes."

If that's the case, then maybe this is one lesson that colleges—especially community colleges, the "people's colleges"—can learn from the corporate world. Perhaps what the most at-risk students really need, instead of being herded into online courses, is the "personal touch." Maybe they need more face-to-face interaction with instructors and other students; more conferences in their professors' offices; more private, one-on-one tutoring sessions; more hanging out with their peers in the student center between classes.

Maybe allowing those students to sit at home, alone in front of their computers, with little in the way of emotional support—not to mention, in many cases, educational support—is actually a bad idea. Maybe instead of doing everything we can to encourage them to take as many of classes as possible online, we should be welcoming them to our campuses and into our classrooms.

If future funds for higher education really do follow completion rates, rather than just enrollment figures, then this approach could even end up being more cost-effective for colleges in the long run.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and the author of "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges." He blogs at and writes monthly for our community-college column. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.