Posteado por: joncastano | 21 agosto, 2012

Who attends and completes virtual Universities?

As discussed in a previous post, there is evidence that students may be learning the material in on-line courses as well as in traditional face-to-face universities, but how well students learn content is not the only reason they persist to a degree.

Previous research shows some of the factors that contibute to student’s persistence in traditionals face to face universities: high school scores, how students match up with the difficulty of the institution, the familiar economic support, the ethnicity, the socioeconomic background or the relative economic payoff to college graduation.

There is evidence that dropout rates are higher in online courses at face to face universities and it has been signaled as a problem of this kind of education (e.g. see these links “link 1”  and “link 2“).

However, there are few, if any, studies that identify the characteristics of students taking courses in on-line universities or that systematically analyze the factors related to their completion rates.

This lack of research is surprising, given the enormous numbers of students now taking such courses everywhere in the world. In the paper “Who attends and completes virtual Universities: the case of the Open University of Catalonia (UOC)” we have begun to fill this void studying an online university: The UOC, with  about 20%-30% of graduation rate (e.g. see graphic 1).

Graphic 1: Enrollment, Dropout and Graduation Rates in a particular degree: Personnel Management. 2001-02 First semester cohort.

In this paper, we make the case that the life conditions for students attending virtual universities are different from those of “traditional” students in face-to-face universities, and that this difference makes the time (lenght of the degree, time avaliable for study, flexibility at work…) the most important predictor variable of the persistence. Below you cand find a summary of the main findings.

Distance Virtual Higher Education Student Profile.

In developed countries, almost all the virtual higher education students are adults and workers. Related to the age, they are more likely to have domestics and family responsabilities than a typical young students. These characteristics are linked to a lack of time, and because it they are usually part-time students.

Another interesting characteristic of the Virtual Higher Education Students is that they have higher previous educational level: About 40% had already attended post-secondary education before.

What variables are related to completion rates at the Online Universities?

As mentined above, there are a lot of research on the causes of  the persistence/drop out of the students of the face to face universities. However, given the profile of their clientele, on-line universities operate under very different constraints from their face-to-face counterparts.

Under the assumption for students in online education competing uses of non-work time are a main factor influencing graduation rates at on-line universities we analyze the influence of three groups of variables on the persistence of the students:

  • Domestic and family responsabilities
  • Lenght and field of the degree
  • Suport of the employer (temporal and economic)

We expect that these variables, related with the time avaliable, play a much more prominent role than  the typical factors influencing persistence for younger students attending face-to-face universities. The main results are summarized below:

1. The domestics and family responsabilities, especially the number of children,  are associated with a low completion rate.

2. Completion rates are negatively related to the length of the program of study. Although it is logical that time required to get a degree is more important to persistence for older students with less time available,  it is probably also true that a 2 year specialized program may be more motivating. A specialized 2 year degree is probably more motivating that a more general 4 year program is for those just beginning a university course of study or with a degree in another field. Second cycle degree students may also be more motivated to complete because these degrees may have a higher immediate economic payoff than first cycle degrees.

3. Completion rates may also be linked to variation in objectives of UOC students in taking courses or in the difficulty of the programs relative to student expectations.

  • For example, compared to other 3 year, first cycle programs, completion rates are somewhat lower among students taking 3 year, first cycle information technology management and information technology systems programs. We surmise that some of these students are interested in just taking several courses in the program to update the previous IT knowledges rather than obtaining a degree in that field.
  • It may also be that many of those enrolling in the IT programs are drawn to the idea of getting a first cycle university degree in information technology but once confronted by the reality of the programming and math skills required, quickly (during or after the first semester) drop out. Unraveling these reasons for low completion rates entails further research.

4. Students who get support from their employers in paying for their study or giving them time from their job for course work,  are more likely to complete spending less time. This result suggests that even when on-line university direct costs to students are low, as in the UOC, employer financial support may send a signal to the student that studying for a degree has value to the employer, hence motivates the student to complete.


The implications for virtual of these results universities  are fairly clear:

  • Any action to increase the time avaliable is positive to avoid the drop out.
  • If persistence to degree is a major institutional objective, a virtual university will do much better with its students if it offers more specialized short degree courses, including Masters degrees, to those who have other university degrees.
  • Nevertheless, it is possible that the problem with the longer courses is that virtual universities, like many face-to-face universities, are not concerned enough with students dropping out or not completing programs of study. This requires following student progress carefully, assessing the reasons for dropout, and intervening effectively. Virtual universities may not regard this as part of their “responsibility” or one of their primary goals. It may also be that the university may view the reasons for lower completion rates in longer programs as structural—for example, that older, working students are time sensitive and will have high dropout rates in longer programs no matter what universities do. However, that may not be the case.


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