Opinion: online courses and complexities of graduation rates


Opinion: online courses and complexities of graduation rates

The rate at which students are enrolling into online courses is yet to slow down.

Online courses, in this context, refers to courses provided digitally by public colleges and universities, as well as those taught by private non-profit and for-profit institutions.


Thousands of students take at least one online course per year. With so many enrollments, one would think that the success rate of online learning must be just as high. However, some data seems to point to lower numbers than were expected, specifically in terms of graduation rates. To understand the complexities surrounding online graduation rates, though, we must first explore some of the issues and misinterpretations that correspond to the data that has been gathered.

Online Student Needs and Expectations

Students enroll in online courses for a variety of reasons. For some, it may be a matter of location; a student may, for example, be unable to attend on ground classes due to lack of transportation or due to the distance between their home and campus. For others, their schedules may not align well with onground course schedules, the former of which is often the result of full-time jobs and/or family obligations. Online learning may therefore seem like the answer to these students’ needs, but the reality for some may be more challenging than they originally thought. The discipline and demands required of online learning can be just as tough as courses taught on ground, if not more.

Academically, online courses may be too strenuous for some students, specifically non-traditional students who haven’t been in school for a while.  The lack of student support for some online courses can be problematic for these students. On the other hand, other online courses may prove to be far less strenuous than the student was expecting, so much so that actual learning may not occur. Both scenarios can cause a student to leave school before their degree program is complete.

Misinterpretations and Debates

The data gathered regarding graduation rates and online schooling is not free of disagreements and misunderstandings. For example, a common type of online course today is called a MOOC, or a massive online open course, many of which are provided to the public free of charge. Often, they are even offered by major, well-known universities. Because the courses are free, many learners choose not to complete them. This lack of completion can sometimes become part of the data gathered on online graduation rates, although the student purposes for learning are very different.

Research can also be completed in different contexts, such as public 4-year institutions versus community colleges. As a result, findings may show high graduation rates in one context and low in another, but the distinction between the two contexts is not always made. Thus, generic conclusions may be drawn about the success rates of online learning as a whole.

Deeper Analysis

It seems a closer look at graduation data for online programs is needed before accurate interpretations can be made. Research must be clearly defined and disseminated for proper analysis. Regardless of data conclusions, however, online courses must continue to improve their engagement level with students, for the sake of the thousands who continue to enroll.

Posted On: 8 January, 2020