Student Satisfaction and the Future of Online Learning in Higher Education: Lessons from a Natural Experiment




Online learning, Higher education, COVID-19, Selection bias, Virtual campus, Student satisfaction, Faculty engagement


Although there is substantial research on the effectiveness of online learning at the individual class level, there is little reliable data on how a shift to a mostly or fully virtual campus would impact undergraduates’ satisfaction, engagement, and academic achievement. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, the limited adoption of widespread online learning at selective schools and challenges of selection bias hindered a reliable assessment of such a shift in selective institutions. After the initial period of “emergency remote learning” in 2020, many selective institutions continued widespread online learning in the second year of the pandemic. Treating the expanded deployment of online learning as a natural experiment, the present study assesses the impact of frequent online learning during the spring semester of 2021 on representative samples of undergraduate students at three selective, four-year universities. The study finds that students who participated in classes that met in person at least once a week had higher evaluations of faculty engagement and higher overall levels of academic satisfaction, compared to those who never or rarely participated in an in-person class. This relationship appears less pronounced for Black and Asian students than for White students but does not vary significantly by gender. Although online learning has great potential, these results suggest a need to better understand the conditions that will support an expansion of online learning that can maintain student satisfaction.


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Section II