Why Do Students Leave Online Courses? Attrition in Community College Distance Learning Courses

Article excerpt


Consistent with their mission of increasing educational opportunities, community colleges have been among the leaders in distance education. However high rates of course and program attrition is a widely recognized problem that has contributed to persistent concerns about the efficacy and viability of distance learning. This paper investigates determinants of attrition from online courses at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) of the City University of New York. Since the inception of BMCC's online initiative in Spring 2001, attrition rates have consistently been twice as large in online courses. Course attrition consists of two groups of students who may have some different reasons for non-completion, those who officially withdraw from their courses and those who unofficially withdraw. In order to better understand online attrition, we examined these students in detail. Several questions guided our research: 1) Does the academic and demographic profile of students who officially and unofficially withdrew differ from one another, and from online students in general? 2) Do these students have different reasons for leaving their online courses? The study will argue that there are important differences among these students that colleges need to address, especially community colleges since they often enroll academically at-risk students.


The anytime /anyplace virtue of online courses would seem to be an excellent option for community college students since they often juggle school with work and family responsibilities. But despite its greater convenience and flexibility, online education has been beset by unusually high attrition rates. Indeed, according to one authority, many online courses retain half or even fewer of their students, [1] while annual retention in online programs is thought to average about 65%. [2] These statistics have prompted many researchers and commentators to question the efficacy of online learning. [3] A notable alternative perspective on this issue has been advanced by Diaz. [4] He argues that online students' lower likelihood of persisting is not surprising considering that distance education is particularly attractive to individuals whose life circumstances--such as fulltime employee status and heavy family obligations--tend to preclude regular attendance in face-to-face classes. Therefore rather than an indicator of academic non-success, online students who withdraw are often making a mature, well-informed decision that is preferable to struggling through an online course and learning a low grade. In effect, Diaz is suggesting that distance learning's comparatively high attrition is an expected by product of the expanded educational market, and is more apt to be a consequence of students' busy lives rather than a failing of the online format.

Diaz's argument appears to be particularly well suited to explain online attrition among community college students who typically have numerous competing obligations. [5] Moreover, since public community colleges have by far the largest distance education enrollment, [6] it is important to test his hypothesis in this sector. BMCC's online learning initiative provides an ideal opportunity to assess whether online course non-completion is primarily due to students' extracurricular circumstances or with their difficulty in adjusting to and learning in an online setting. In fall 2003, when BMCC had 728 online students (duplicated headcount) in 33 courses, the overall online course attrition rate was 26% compared to12% in traditional sections of the same courses. Nearly two-thirds of the non-completers formally withdrew from their online courses. On its face, this would seem to be in accordance with Diaz's argument that these students are making a mature, well-informed decision that has their academic interests at heart. By contrast, over one-third of students unofficially withdrew from their online courses, which would seem to counter Diaz's claim since unofficial withdrawals are treated like an F grade in student's GPA. …