DISTANCE EDUCATION: Why Are the Attrition Rates So High?

By Moody, Johnette | Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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DISTANCE EDUCATION: Why Are the Attrition Rates So High?

Moody, Johnette, Quarterly Review of Distance Education

Distance education is being hailed as the next best thing to sliced bread. But is it really? Many problems exist with distance-delivered courses. Everything from course development and management to the student not being adequately prepared are problematic and result in high attrition rates in distance-delivered courses. Students initially perceive distance learning courses as easy. However, it may be this perception that ultimately results in the student dropping the course.

Distance education is not a new subject, but recently it has come in vogue (Terry, 2001). With the dawn of new educational and training technologies made possible by the Internet, distance education is a practical option for today's time-starved students. Enrollment in distance-delivered courses is on the increase. Although enrollment is relatively high, it is important to note that the attrition rate is higher in online courses (Morgan & Tarn, 1999). Distance learners throughout the world are characterized by having a higher attrition rate than their campus-based counterparts (Losty & Broderson, 1980).

If the attrition rate is higher for distance-delivered courses, why does a student choose asynchronous, online learning rather than the traditional campus-based synchronous learning? As Svetcov (2000) has noted, online education is convenient (no moving, no commuting, no leaving the house) and collaborative (students in China and Minnesota can work together on presentations). Student benefits associated with Internet instruction include increased access to higher education, flexible location, individualized attention from the instructor, less travel, and increased time to respond to questions posed by the instructor (Matthews, 1999). Research also indicates that many students enter into distance education with the perception that the course will result in an "easy A."

Regardless of the benefits that distance education can offer students, the problems associated with distance education diminish the overall benefits. Other problems such as the mode of delivery, the establishment of a learning community, loss of personal contact, cheating, and assessment plague distancedelivered courses. Problems even exist with basic course development. In the final analysis, even what first appeared as a benefit of distance education, can, in fact, result in a negative impact. These problems contribute to high attrition rates in distance education.

Student attrition is a recognized major problem that has both economic and educational implications. The attrition rate is also seen as a measure of the quality of education offered by the institution (Thompson, 1999). The costs for development, delivery, and assessment, as well as lost tuition revenue, result in wasted expenditures for the institution delivering the courses at a distance.


While a great deal of research has been conducted concerning attrition rates, only a minimal amount of that research has been directed toward gaining insight in to attrition rates in distance education. Potential explanations for the higher attrition rates include students not being able to adjust to the self-paced approach in the virtual format, the rigor of study being more difficult than students anticipated, and a lack of student and faculty experience with the instruction mode (Terry, 2001). An imperative for educators has been to identify what leads distance learners to drop out and then to take appropriate preventive measures (Morgan & Tarn, 1999).

Historically, the online student has been presented with the exact course information as the campus-based student. Mode of delivery has been the primary difference between the two courses. Email has been, and continues to be, the primary source of interaction between student and professor. Surveys and questionnaires have been developed and transmitted via email to online learners in an attempt to gain insight into the higher attrition rates.

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DISTANCE EDUCATION: Why Are the Attrition Rates So High?


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