Online Classes May Worsen Educational Achievement Gap, Study Shows

Tim Goral's picture

It’s one of the most hyped ideas in higher education today — the hope that college courses taught online can drive down the cost of a degree, and make it easier for working students to complete their college education.

But a new study comparing the success rates of online and traditional, face-to-face courses taught at Washington’s community colleges shows more students drop out, and fewer get a passing grade, when they take a class online than when they take it in a classroom.

And the students who fare the worst are those who are already struggling in college, raising the possibility that a push to more online classes could exacerbate the higher-education achievement gap.

The study was done by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, at the request of Washington’s community colleges.

The data included results from 500,000 courses taken by 40,000 students over four years — tapping into “a strong and robust data system” the state keeps on success rates in community colleges, said Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the research center.

Smith Jaggars, who was one of the study’s authors, said many previous studies comparing online and in-class course success have been limited in scope, usually only comparing the results of a single course taught in-person at a four-year college to the same course taught online.

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