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Online Education: The Key to Low-Income Student Completion?

Jun 9, 2010 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Recently, a study by Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit university based in Santa Ana, California, released a study that suggested for-profit colleges—including online schools—achieve better completion rates than two-year universities for low-income and first-generation college students. It also claims that proprietary schools get better results when it comes to wage earnings and job placement of alumni.

While these results look exciting, it’s important to keep in mind that they are sponsored by a for-profit school—and some student advocates question the methodology. There are several other studies in the works—including one by Western Governors University, funded by the Gates Foundation—that plan to look into how online education affects low-income students’ graduation rates as well. It’s clear that more research needs to be done.

However, we do think these studies are on to something. Many online schools are for-profit. And there are several reasons why it makes sense that at-risk students would find it easier to complete online degree programs, whether for-profit or traditional, than programs at a traditional school. Here are just a few.

Tough Times

There are several other studies in the works—including one by Western Governors University, funded by the Gates Foundation—that plan to look into how online education affects low-income students’ graduation rates as well. 

It’s flexible

When you’re strapped for cash, sometimes your life can be unpredictable. You might get stuck taking on extra shifts at work or needing to take on a second job, for example. These are all things that could derail someone’s education if they’re taking classes in a traditional way. With online classes, students can just study at a time that works better for them.

No need to go to class

For low-income families, sometimes just getting to class can be a challenge. For those who live outside major cities, it can be tough to get anywhere without a car—and could involve hours spent on public transportation. In addition, parents who go to class often need to pay for childcare. With online classes, students don’t need to worry about getting to class or having someone else take care of children while they’re out.

It’s cheaper

Online schools tend to cost less than many traditional schools when it comes to tuition—although when you compare them to state schools and community colleges, the tuition comparison tends to even out. Also, some online schools may be more expensive options if they are for-profit. However, you also have reduced costs in terms of housing, moving expenses, transportation expenses and other costs. A lot of the costs associated with college are eliminated when it comes to online classes.

No need to quit or change your job. It’s hard to be a full-time student and a full-time employee at the same time. To get around this issue, many full-time students cut back on hours, change jobs, or quit entirely. But not everyone can afford to do that. This is definitely an issue that can prevent some people from continuing an education. But with online classes, you don’t face this issue—because students can schedule classes around their work schedules.

It’s focused

Some traditional degrees require students to take classes that may not be directly relevant to their career goals in the interest of a well-rounded education. While this system is preferable for many, it can make things more expensive for adult students who are counting their credits. Many online schools are geared more toward working adults, and the programs can be more career-focused.

It’s pretty clear that no matter the benefits to online learning, more research has to be done before it can be clearly promoted as a solution that contributes directly to lower dropout rates among at-risk college students. Still, for many working adults, online education has worked where traditional programs haven’t—whether that’s because of flexibility of time and place, cost issues, or teaching methodologies depends more on each student’s situation. Hopefully, there will be more evidence in the future that will shed light on innovations and advances schools need to make in order to keep low-income students in their degree programs.


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