Why Do Poor Students Drop Out Of Online Learning More Often

For some students, attending an online college class won’t be the right fit.

When I worked on a report about options for students in under-served communities to pursue careers in technology or to connect to digital resources from social media to the classroom, our focus centered around affordability and access to successful programs and services for high-need students.

We hoped to provide a blueprint for school districts, service providers, business and industry leaders and others interested in advancing promising programs. But amid the inevitable criticism and conjecture, there is another discussion happening about these best practices: how might online learning from institutions like Stanford University work for low-income students?

Low-income students are much more likely to drop out of college than their higher-income peers, and the problem continues to get worse, despite efforts to expand access to affordable programs like online courses.

According to a 2017 study from the National Center for Education Statistics, high-need students enrolled in a traditional four-year institution who were at risk of dropping out of college dropped out at a rate of 28 percent in 2015 compared to just 12 percent of low-income students attending online schools. The overall graduation rate among low-income high school students who enrolled in an online college increased from 2.3 percent in 2012 to 3.3 percent in 2016.

The higher dropout rates in low-income students are surprising because they are harder to track and more likely to be due to deliberate and intentional choices of where to attend. Many low-income students enroll in a college that already has a solid track record of low dropout rates. When low-income students attend such colleges, dropping out remains a challenge. Many students who are raised in households where the pressure is to succeed naturally desire to avoid the kind of upheavals that can occur with new student types with more limited social networks and a greater susceptibility to risk taking. These factors may help to explain why we’ve seen such an increase in online courses.

Online courses offered at selective institutions like Stanford often are underutilized because they’re not seen as a likely way to get into college. They are also frequently not counted in the institutions’ graduation rates. Online higher education programs generally lack some elements that are necessary to support populations with high dropout rates. They lack quality academics, specific service programming for students at risk of dropping out, mentoring and family support.

Still, we should keep in mind that at Stanford and elsewhere, online learning is not an exclusively elite option; many low-income students participate. As suggested in a research brief published by the Center for Democratic Practice, online education should be offered as an extension of a college degree, serving as a graduate program pathway for students who would benefit from a deeper education in addition to strengthening skills in high school.

Students from low-income backgrounds tend to have a dearth of one-on-one support from parents and teachers that traditionally help high-achieving students succeed. Even students who do have the opportunity to engage with mentors often do not take full advantage of it.

While high-quality online learning has a place as a long-term option for low-income and struggling students, we need to explore what factors that will lead to success and ultimately help low-income students close the gaps in college graduation. Ultimately, we should focus on establishing additional reasons for students to pursue online learning, including more opportunities to engage, meet people who are like them and gain access to professional connections and tools.

Maryanne Roller is the author of the forthcoming Zebra Child: The Tragic and Brilliant Saga of an Online College Graduate, as well as many other books. She is a contributing editor for Far Side, Liberal Ink and is the former editor in chief of Smart Girls at the Summit. Roller lives with her family in Philadelphia. She can be reached at maryanne@maryanneroller.com.

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