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Mixing in Online Courses Boosts Outcomes for CC Students

student studying in library with laptop

A statewide study of 30 SUNY community colleges found that, overall, students who successfully completed online courses nearly doubled their chances of earning a degree or transferring to a four-year college. However, racial minority students had reduced outcomes.

As reported in "Effects of Online Course Load on Degree Completion, Transfer, and Dropout among Community College Students of the State University of New York," published recently in the Online Learning Journal, the current thinking holds that "some students" do worse when they study online compared to when they attend face-to-face classes. The researchers pulled data from 45,557 students attending community colleges for the first time in New York between fall 2012 and fall 2017, to examine two basic questions:

  • Is there a threshold at which the share of online versus face-to-face courses pose a threat to degree competition for a student?
  • And, does the "intensity" of the online work change the impact of other, traditional predictors of degree completion, such as enrollment status, remedial education, grade point average or minority status?

Most of the students were aged between 16 and 25, and the majority were full-time students, at least at the beginning of their college careers, mixing both online and traditional courses. The sample was almost evenly split between male and female. About three in five students (58.5 percent) qualified for remedial coursework during their first semesters. And the "second largest" ethnic/racial group was African-American (15 percent), followed by Hispanic/Latinx (14 percent).

The researchers looked at three competing risks over the course of 21 consecutive semesters: departure or dropout; attainment of a credential; and transfer into a four-year institution. (They chose to combine the data for those last two categories — attainment and transfer — into a single outcome.)

As the journal article reported, there was a link between the intensity of online coursework and whether a student transferred, finished a degree or dropped out. When students took more online than face-to-face courses and didn't earn credit for the online classes, the outcomes were worse. "However," the researchers noted, "when controlling for successful course completion, the odds of degree completion increased for each additional unit of successful online study." In other words, for the typical student, success begot success. Online course completion "significantly" improved the chances of a student earning a degree. In fact, for each additional unit of successful online study, the odds of degree completion nearly doubled, increasing by a factor of 1.72.

The same wasn't true for minority students. Those with higher online loads "were more likely to drop out than nonminority students," the article stated. This was especially concerning, the researchers pointed out, for those minority students who were academically stronger; they were at especially high risk for dropping out when most of their classes were fully online. This, they added, was an area ripe for more research.

Another finding explored the link between GPA and full-time/part-time status. The combination of full-time status and higher grades increased the likelihood of positive outcomes (degree attainment and/or a transfer). At the same time, for part-timers with lower GPAs, taking online courses improved the upward transfer/degree completion trend relative to their full-time counterparts with low GPAs. This also deserved more research, the researchers wrote.

The results, developed by Peter Shea at SUNY's University of Albany, and Temi Bidjerano at South Carolina's Furman University, are openly available on the Online Learning Journal website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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