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Research: Online Courses Associated with Improved Retention, Access

Online courses are associated with higher retention and graduation rates, increased access and cost savings of as much as 50 percent, according to a new study from Arizona State University.

The research is built on case studies from a half-dozen institutions "with a strong track record of using digital learning to improve student outcomes," according to information released by ASU. In addition to ASU, the other schools examined for the study include Georgia State University, Houston Community College, Kentucky Community and Technical College System, Rio Salado Community College and University of Central Florida.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Among four institutions in the study that offered face-to-face and online courses, three reported higher retention and graduation rates for students who took at least come online courses;
  • At Houston Community College (HCC), for example, retention for first-time freshman was 9 to 10 percentage points higher among students who took an online or blended course;
  • HCC students who took at least some digital courses were 17 percentage points more likely to graduate than those who only took face-to-face courses;
  • At the University of Central Florida (UCF), students who took 41 to 60 percent of their courses online finished earlier, in 3.9 years, on average, than students who took no course online, with an average of 4.3 years needed to graduate;
  • Student performance as measured by grades was mixed, ranging from 3 percentage points more likely to end with an A, B or C among those took online or blended courses to 12 percentage points lower;
  • Students at two-year institutions, unlike four-year schools, were more likely to earn lower grades for online or blended courses, though retention and graduation rates were still often higher for those students;
  • At the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTC), for example, students who took at least some online courses were 18 percentage points more likely to persist and 21 points more likely to graduate, though their grades were 8 to 9 points lower, on average, than their peers who took only in-person courses;
  • Adaptive courseware correlated with smaller achievement gaps for minority students and those who qualified for Pell Grants, with only 8 percent of minority students earning a D, F or withdrawing from all sections of an adaptive introductory writing course at Georgia State University (GSU), compared to 19 percent of minority students in the same course but without adaptive courseware;
  • Among those eligible for Pell Grants the numbers were similarly skewed, at 7 percent and 21 percent, respectively;
  • Among the five institutions studied that offered both online only and face-to-face courses, the share of students receiving Pell Grants was at least 5 percentage points higher among those who were fully online than those whose courses were fully in-person; and
  • Online undergraduate students were, on average, six to eight years older than their on-campus peers.

"We are now seeing how scaled digital learning environments circumnavigate barriers of time and space, decrease time to completion amidst a radical demographic shift and provide pathways for unprecedented program completion," said Lou Pugliese, who oversaw the study and serves as managing director and senior education fellow for EdPlus at ASU, in a prepared statement. "The maturity of digital technologies has given way to new design methods that now allow institutions to more effectively address the unique set of specific learner needs in order to sustain in their academic journey."

The full report is available at

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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