Online education boosts enrollment, not completion, study says

A new study by higher education research firm EduVentures released last week questions the net impact of online higher education, Inside Higher Ed reports. The research suggests that while online education increases college access, especially for adult learners, on average it lowers students’ odds of completing their degrees.

EduVentures Chief Research Officer Richard Garrett examined federal data on online enrollments, prices, and completions, and state-by-state data from the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements. The study found that enrollment of traditional-age undergraduates rose by three percent from 2012 to 2017, while the number of undergraduates studying fully online grew by 11 percent during that period (to about 2.25 million). Garrett said that 13 percent of all undergraduates are studying fully online.

The report also showed clusters of high online enrollment in certain states and cities, such as Birmingham, Alabama, where 12 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in fully online in-state undergraduate degree programs. According to Inside Higher Ed, 11 of the 20 states with the lowest rates of bachelor’s-degree attainment also appear on the list of states where the largest proportions of residents are studying online at in-state institutions. The publication suggests that such cities may view online education as a tactic for closing economic gaps.

Early data suggests blended approach may produce stronger outcomes

While acknowledging that available data remains imperfect, Garrett nonetheless pointed to federal eight-year outcomes data suggesting that students enrolled at institutions where the vast majority of instruction is delivered online were significantly less likely than students at other types of institutions to complete a degree there within eight years. Students at colleges where a large percentage of students take some courses online, on the other hand, had outcomes similar to those for students at schools with little online instruction.

Ultimately, Garrett recommended a blend of online and in-person learning for more consistently positive student outcomes. While “fully online learning is popular with many nontraditional students” and does have potential to reduce inequality, he said, “its potential is currently undermined by a long feedback loop…and the challenges of identifying and scaling up best practices.”

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