Online courses a cure-all? Think again, says UC Davis study

As tuitions rise and students take longer to complete an undergraduate degree, the pressure is on higher education leaders and policymakers to provide a more efficient path to degree for students. Offering more online courses has been touted as a possible solution.

A recent UC Davis study comparing community college student performance in online versus traditional, face-to-face instruction sounds a cautionary note.

In an exhaustive study of student performance in the California Community College system, the nation’s largest with 2.3 million students per year, UC Davis education researchers found that students’ grades and rates of completion are lower in online courses than for the same courses offered in person. In all, they studied 217,000 first-time entrants to the community college system from 2008-09 through 2011-12.

“We found the same pattern of results across all course types,” said Cassandra Hart,  assistant professor in the UC Davis School of Education, who conducted the study with education doctoral students Michael Hill and Elizabeth Friedmann.

Students fared even worse in online formats when taking courses outside the regular academic calendar and when enrolled in courses where a relatively low share of students enrolled through online sections. The researchers also found large gaps for courses in mathematics and humanities (which include English language arts). Finally, they found that women face a slightly larger performance gap than men.

“The consistency of our results is important from a policy perspective,” says Hart. “Policymakers in California and other states are interested in exploring whether online courses can be used to expand instruction and improve outcomes, but there may be costs to this strategy.”

They suggest that a more formal cost-benefit analysis be done to see if course noncompletion or failure offset possible cost savings of online courses. They also make recommendations for improving outcomes in the short-term, including limiting the number of online sections offered during the summer; having faculty implement course policies and practices that would help them detect student disengagement; and introducing students to study and time-management strategies for online formats.

Hart, Hill and Friedmann presented their study at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Chicago on Saturday, April 18.

Media Resources

Karen Nikos-Rose, Research news (emphasis: arts, humanities and social sciences), 530-219-5472,

Donna Justice, School of Education, (530) 754-4826,