Retention, Progression and the Taking of Online Courses

Scott James, Karen Swan, Cassandra Daston


Online learning continues to grow at post-secondary institutions across the United States, but many question its efficacy, especially for students most at-risk for failure. This paper engages that issue. It examines recent research on the success of community college students who take online classes and explores similar comparisons using 656,258 student records collected through the Predictive Analytics Reporting (PAR) Framework. In particular, the research investigated retention rates for students in three delivery mode groups — students taking only onground courses, students taking only online courses, and students taking some courses onground and some courses online at five primarily onground community colleges, five primarily onground four-year universities, and four primarily online institutions.
Results revealed that taking some online courses did not result in lower retention rates for students enrolled in primarily onground community colleges participating in the PAR Framework. Moreover, although retention rates were lower for such students taking only online courses than for similar students taking only onground or blending their courses, much of the difference could be explained by extraneous factors. Essentially no differences in retention between delivery mode groups were found for students enrolled in primarily onground four-year universities participating in the PAR Framework, while at participating primarily online institutions, students blending their courses had slightly better odds of being retained than students taking exclusively onground or exclusively online courses. No differences between the latter groups were found at these institutions.
Patterns of retention were similar regardless of gender across institutional categories, and were mostly similar regardless of Pell grant status with the exception of fully online students at traditional community colleges. Age, however, did differentially affect delivery mode effects. Older students taking only online courses were retained at higher rates than younger students taking only online courses at both primarily onground community colleges and primarily online institutions. The results suggest that, despite media reports to the contrary, taking online courses is not necessarily harmful to students’ chances of being retained, and may provide course-taking opportunities that otherwise might not be available, especially for nontraditional students.


Retention, progression, online learning, learning analytics

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