The Role of Enrollment Choice in Online Education: Course Selection Rationale and Course Difficulty as Factors Affecting Retention

Claire Wladis, Katherine Wladis, c/o Katherine Conway, Alyse C. Hachey


There is well-documented evidence that online retention rates are lower than face-to-face retention rates; however, most past research on online retention focuses on student characteristics, with little knowledge existing on the impact of course type. This study uses a matched sample of 2,330 students at a large urban community college to analyze two key course-level factors which may be impacting online retention: the student’s reason for taking the course (as an elective or a requirement) and course difficulty level. The results of this study indicate that the online modality increases dropout risk in courses that are taken as an elective or distributional requirement, particularly for lower-level courses. The findings suggest that in the online environment, the student’s reason for course enrollment may be considered a risk indicator and that focused learner support targeted at particular course types may be needed to increase online persistence and retention.


Online learning; retention; motivation; course difficulty; elective; community college

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