Kay Steiger sounds off the warning bells with regard to online college:
Via the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, a new study confirms some earlier findings about the efficacy of online learning in two-year colleges. The study, conduced by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, looked at more than 50,000 students in Washington state’s community or technical college system. What they found was that students who load up on online classes, especially early in their higher education careers, are less likely to finish their degrees. This is worrisome, especially because, as CCRC notes in its report, the number of students taking online courses is only increasing.
Other commentary has pointed out that online learning requires a basic degree of computer know-how that a lot of people don’t have and that online learning requires a level of discipline that traditional learning doesn’t. These are both very valid points and two of the three main reasons why online education will never become a norm (even as computer know-how increases). But there is something else at work, which Steiger points out: online students are not the same as physical students in terms of student profiles.
The Atlantic has been raising the banner of the non-traditional student. This is part of the “problem,” if you view it as such. Non-traditional students returning to school may be a good thing, but they’re often going to be the most marginal students. Not because they’re lazy or dumb, but because they have a lot of other things going on. That’s precisely what attracts them to the flexibility of online learning in the first place. This is also one of the reasons that for-profit universities have such abysmal graduation rates. They cater to precisely these students.
When we talk about increasing college enrollment, this is one of the things that we have to be looking at. We’d partially be bringing into the fold a lot of people who are not, at present, in a great position to do well in school. It may be worth bringing them into the fold anyway! But we have to accept that one of the costs of this is going to be higher drop-out rates and at least some students potentially hurt along the way with debt but no degree. Unless we’re going to start paying people to go to college, we have to factor this into the equation.
This is something that brick-and-mortar universities themselves often look at. One university near where I live is trying like hell to make the transition away from being a commuter school that provides the opportunity for a great education to people without a lot of options in favor of being a more traditional university. Why? Because a lot of these students are failing out. This hurts the university’s profile by making it look like a school that is failing. But by changing the student body to a more traditional one, the hope is that the numbers will improve and the university will look better. The only sacrifice required is shuffling off the “wrong” people to schools that are less good.
And on a personal level, I grit my teeth when I hear people talking about how they want their kids to “work their way through college.” Presumably so that they won’t take it for granted. There may be something to this, though in my experience working while going to college is more often going to be a recipe for failure. A working student serves two masters. My ex-girlfriend, an honors student in high school, failed miserably in college due in no small part to the fact that she was working at a pet store the whole time. Could she have done both if she were more disciplined? Sure. But that’s the kind of disciplined student you don’t have to worry about in the first place. Meanwhile, my own GPA fell considerably when I started working while attending. It’s a serious distraction. Some people have no choice. But putting kids in that situation for the sake of making a point or thinking it will lead to better outcomes is mistaken.