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Research on Online Higher Education: An Inquiry Into Retention and Success


Abstract: Research has documented lower retention rates in online versus face- to-face courses. However, little research has focused on the impact of course-level characteristics (e.g. elective versus distributional versus major requirements; difficulty level; STEM status) on online course outcomes. Yet, focusing interventions at the course level versus the student level may be a more economical approach to reducing online attrition. This study used multi-level modeling, and controlled for the effects of both instructor-level and student characteristics, to measure the relationship of course-level characteristics with successful completion of online and face-to-face courses. Elective courses, and to a lesser extent distributional course requirements, were significantly more likely to have a larger gap in successful course completion rates online versus face-to-face, when compared with major course requirements. Upper level courses had better course completion rates overall, but a larger gap in online versus face-to-face course outcomes than lower level courses. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: Previous research supports that retention is significantly lower in online courses in comparison to face-to face courses; however, much of the past research on student retention in the online environment focuses on student characteristics, with little existing on the impact of course type. This study identifies and analyzes two key factors that may be impacting online retention: the student’s reason for taking the course (whether as an elective or a requirement) and course difficulty level. The results of this study indicate that a student’s reason for taking a lower level course drastically impacts the likelihood of withdrawal in the online environment, while having no effect in face-to-face classes. In particular, for lower level courses which students took as an elective or distributional requirement, the online environment seemed to make them much more likely to drop out. The findings suggest that in the online environment, the student’s reason for course enrollment (an elective versus a requirement) may be considered a risk indicator and that focused learner support targeted at particular course types may be needed to increase online persistence and retention. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: In this study, prior online course outcomes and pre-course enrollment G.P.A. were used as predictors of subsequent online course outcomes, and the interaction between these two factors was assessed in order to determine the extent to which students with similar G.P.A.'s but with different prior online course outcomes may differ in their likelihood of successfully completing a subsequent online course. This study used a sample of 962 students who took an online course at a large urban community college from 2004 to 2010. Results indicate that prior online course experience is a very significant predictor of successful completion of subsequent online courses, even more so than G.P.A. For students with no prior online course experience, G.P.A. was a good predictor of future online course outcomes; but for students with previous online course experience prior online course outcomes was a more significant predictor of future online course grades and retention than G.P.A. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: Open access is central to the Community College mission. For this reason, any restriction in online enrollments should not be undertaken lightly. This study uses institutional data gathered from a large, urban community college to examine a policy aimed at increasing student retention in online courses by restricting those eligible to enroll based on G.P.A. The data, counter to expectations, show that the policy did not significantly impact attrition rates. Further analysis reveals that a high G.P.A. cut-off (3.0) is needed to significantly affect attrition rates; however, this would severely restrict those eligible to enroll. The data indicate that students in the middle G.P.A. range (2.0-3.5) have the highest proportional difference in attrition between online and face-to-face courses. The results suggest that rather than focusing on G.P.A. restrictions, community colleges may be better served by addressing research and interventions targeted toward other factors to increase student retention in online learning.

Abstract: Adapting to the 21st century, community colleges are not adding brick and mortar to meet enrollment demands. Instead, they are expanding services through online learning, with at least 61% of all community college students taking online courses today. As online learning is affording alternate pathways to education for students, it is facing difficulty in meeting outcome standards; attrition rates for the past decade have been found to be significantly higher for online courses than face-to-face courses. Yet, there is a lack of empirical investigation on community college online attrition, despite the fact that course and institutional management systems today are automatically collecting a wealth of data which are not being utilized but are readily available for study. This article presents a meta-review of one community college’s realization of their underappreciated asset... the use of institutional data to address the dearth of evidence on factors effecting attrition in online learning. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: This study found that prior online course experience is strongly correlated with future online course success. In fact, knowing a student’s prior online course success explains 13.2% of the variation in retention and 24.8% of the variation in online success in our sample, a large effect size. Students who have not successfully completed any previous online courses have very low success and retention rates, and students who have successfully completed all prior online courses have fairly high success and retention rates. Therefore, this study suggests that additional support services need to be provided to previously unsuccessful online learners, while students who succeed online should be encouraged to enroll in additional online courses in order to increase retention and success rates in online learning. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: This case study examines the evolution of online education at a large urban community college. It outlines issues related to course development, administration, student and faculty support. Online course enrollment, student and faculty perceptions and organizational issues were evaluated a decade after online education was introduced at the college. At both the inception of online education and in order to expand successfully, external funding was crucial for program success.


Abstract: Using data from roughly 27,800 undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors in the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), this research examines the relationship between race/ethnicity, gender and non-traditional student characteristics and online course enrollment. Hispanic and Black STEM majors were significantly less likely, and female STEM majors significantly more likely, to take online courses even when academic preparation, socioeconomic status (SES), citizenship and English-as-second-language (ESL) status were controlled. Furthermore, non-traditional student characteristics strongly increased the likelihood of enrolling in an online course, more so than any other characteristic, with online enrollment probability increasing steeply as the number of non-traditional factors increased. The impact of non-traditional factors on online enrollment was significantly stronger for STEM than non-STEM majors. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: This study used a sample of about 3,600 students in online and face-to-face courses matched by course, instructor, and semester from a large urban community college in the Northeast to analyze how ethnicity, gender and non-traditional student characteristics related to STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] course outcomes online versus face-to- face. Multilevel logistic regression (with course/instructor as grouping factor) and propensity score matching were utilized. Results indicated that older students did significantly better in online STEM courses, and that women did significantly worse (although still no worse than men) online, than would be expected based on their outcomes in comparable face-to-face STEM courses. There was no significant interaction between the online medium and ethnicity, suggesting that while Black and Hispanic students may do worse than their White and Asian peers in both online and face-to-face STEM courses, this gap was not increased by the online environment. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: Using data from the more than 2,000 community college STEM majors in the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, this research examines which groups may be underrepresented online and identifies characteristics which differ significantly between online and face-to-face students. It provides essential information on self-selection into online courses that is necessary for future observational studies of online versus face-to-face outcomes. The results show that Hispanic students were significantly less likely to enroll online, with Black and Hispanic male students particularly underrepresented. Women were significantly more likely to enroll online, as were students with non-traditional student characteristics (delayed enrollment; no high school diploma; part-time enrollment; financially independent; have dependents; single parent status; working full-time). At community colleges, ethnicity was a stronger predictor than non-traditional characteristics, whereas at 4-year colleges the reverse was true: each additional non-traditional risk factor increased the likelihood of online enrollment by two and five percentage points at 2-year and 4-year colleges respectively. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: This study found that G.P.A. and prior online experience both predicted online STEM course outcomes. While students with higher G.P.A.’s were also more likely to have successfully completed prior online courses, prior online course experience added significant information about likely future STEM online outcomes, even when controlling for G.P.A. Students who had successfully completed all prior online courses had significantly higher rates of successful online STEM course completion at all G.P.A. levels than students who had failed to complete even one prior online course successfully. Students who had dropped or earned a D or F grade in even one prior online course had significantly lower rates of successful online STEM course completion than students with no prior online experience, even when controlling for G.P.A. This suggests that prior online course outcomes should be combined with G.P.A. when attempting to identify community college students at highest risk in online STEM courses. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: This study analyzed students who took STEM courses online or face-to-face at a large urban community college in the Northeastern U.S. to determine which course-level characteristics most strongly predicted higher rates of dropout or D/F grades in online STEM courses than would be expected in comparable face-to-face courses. While career and elective STEM courses had significantly higher success rates face-to-face than liberal arts and major requirement STEM courses respectively, career STEM courses had significantly higher success rates online than would be expected, while elective STEM courses had significantly lower success rates online than would be expected given the face-to-face results. Once propensity score matching was used to generate a matched subsample which was balanced on a number of student characteristics, differences in course outcomes by course characteristics were no longer significant. This suggests that while certain types of STEM courses can be identified as higher or lower risk in the online environment, this appears not to be because of the courses themselves, but rather because of the particular characteristics of the students who choose to take these courses online. Findings suggests that one potential intervention for improving online STEM course outcomes could be to target students in specific courses which are at higher risk in the online environment; this may allow institutions to leverage interventions by focusing them on the STEM courses at greatest risk of lower online success rates, where the students who are at highest risk of online dropout seem to be concentrated. Full Text Version Online

Abstract: Both online and STEM courses have been shown to have lower student retention; however, there is little research indicating what effect the online environment may have on retention in STEM courses specifically. This study compares retention rates for online and face-to-face STEM and non- STEM courses to determine if the online environment affects STEM courses differently than non- STEM courses. In addition, different subcategories of STEM courses are compared to see if the effects of the online environment are different for different course subtypes. Each online course is matched with the same course taught face-to-face by the same instructor in the same semester to control for possible confounding effects. This study found that retention rates in STEM courses were more strongly decreased by the online environment than in non-STEM courses. In particular, the course types which had significantly lower retention online were lower level STEM courses taken as electives or distributional requirements.


Abstract: The Latino/a diaspora from the Caribbean, Central and South America to the U.S. is well documented. Many of these immigrants have settled in communities where they now constitute a majority. As noted herein, the Latino/a population varies by region, in its ethnicity, immigration status and longevity in the U.S. In the Northeast, the Latino/a population grew at a rate ten times as fast as the rest of the population in the decade ending 2010. Overall, and specifically in higher education, Latino/a students are the largest minority group and the fastest growing. Many of these students begin at community colleges. But as Latino/a students succeed in college in greater numbers, a new migration is occurring in higher education: to the online environment. This chapter examines Northeast Latino/a student enrollments and persistence in online courses in comparison to the traditional face-to-face classroom and in comparison to other ethnicities. Latino/a students, while enrolling in college in large numbers, continue to lag other student groups in graduation rates, and it is critical to understand if an increase in online course offerings will help or hinder Latino/a student success.

Abstract: Using registration and transcript data, the authors explored differences in online course enrollment across different student groups. This study revealed that minority students do not enroll in online courses to the same extent as their White student peers. An even greater issue is that Black and Hispanic students, regardless of the course delivery medium, continue to have lower G.P.A. s than their White and Asian/Pacific Islander (PI) student peers. This finding reinforces prior research that suggests Black and Hispanic student groups need additional support in order to be successful in college, and that greater recruitment efforts for online courses are needed for all minority groups.

Prior research has also shown that students who enroll in online courses at the college have higher G.P.A.'s than students who enroll in face-to-face courses; however, this study reveals a notable exception to this pattern. In contrast to other ethnic groups, there is no significant difference between Asian/PI students who select face to face versus online courses, suggesting that there are differences in the factors that determine online enrollment in this group compared to others.