Urban Wire Online Enrollment at Public Two-Year Colleges Is Increasing. How Can We Support These Learners?
Amanda Briggs, Semhar Gebrekristos, Shayne Spaulding
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Student demand for flexible education options, as well as changes in technology, the labor market, and the education landscape, are driving shifts toward greater enrollment in online coursework and degree programs.

The ability to complete coursework virtually can provide accessible and flexible options for students seeking to advance their education and career goals.

From fall 2012 to fall 2017, the share of community college students taking an online course increased from 27 to 33 percent. The same upward trend in enrollment is observed for students taking some, but not all, online coursework (at least one course) and for students taking exclusively online coursework.

Bar chart showing online community college enrollment, Fall 2012 vs. Fall 2017

What explains these shifts, and what are their implications?

This growth in online learning may be attributed to the change in the demographics of the college-going population, as students seek out educational opportunities that will not interfere with family and work commitments.

Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study show fully online learners are older, more likely to be single parents, and more likely to work full time compared with their peers. To succeed in a changing economy, these students—many of whom are balancing work, child care, and school—must learn the skills and earn the required credentials and degrees that put them on a path to employment success.

But studies have pointed to challenges with course completion for online students, with some evidence suggesting that negative outcomes are exacerbated (PDF) for “at-risk” students.

Research has examined the important role support services can play in ensuring community college persistence and completion. These supports—activities and programs designed to encourage academic and career success, such as academic advising and career navigation support—are at the center of systems change efforts.

In fact, college success initiatives with some of the strongest outcomes have made student support a centerpiece. But much of that research is limited to investigating supports that are effective for students attending on-campus college courses.

What do students need to succeed?

Our report released this week, Supporting Community College Learners Online, describes insights from 23 interviews with community college staff, researchers, and other experts and our literature review to identify promising practices for colleges interested in creating a positive online learning experience.

We find:

Technology can enable support services

Because online learning is a technology-mediated experience, technology also plays a critical role in the delivery of student support services. It can increase efficiency for students and free up time for college staff to focus on interventions that require personalized, one-on-one interaction.

Academic and personal supports help students understand the resources available to them

Community colleges provide academic and personal supports to help online learners navigate their academic experience and for various other needs.

Promising practices for colleges include the following:

  • developing a robust orientation for online learners to familiarize students with course and program requirements
  • having an assigned advisor be the first point of contact for online students

Engagement supports build vital connections

To combat feelings of isolation among students, engagement supports can be used to increase the connection between students and what they are learning (learner-to-content engagement), the teacher (learner-to-instructor engagement), and their peers (learner-to-learner engagement).

Promising practices for colleges include the following:

  • establishing standards for engagement with online learners
  • collecting survey feedback throughout the semester to inform the continuous improvement of the online course experience

Career supports help students succeed in the workplace

Career-oriented supports in online programs aim to help students identify work opportunities and succeed in achieving their employment goals.

Promising practices for colleges include the following:

  • intentionally involving employers in the development and implementation of online career-oriented services
  • Explore opportunities to expand work-based learning in the online context, leveraging technology to simulate the workplace environment 

We can learn more about what supports work best for students

Our findings also reflect the need for better data and evidence on how online supports impact student outcomes, whether evidence finds a return on investment for online courses, programs, and supports; when the use of technology enhances or diminishes learning; and how to best support the online instructor,

Getting this information in the hands of colleges, funders, and federal and state policymakers will help drive investment in approaches that work and is mutually beneficial to postsecondary institutions and the students they serve.


Research Areas Education Workforce
Tags Higher education Workforce development Beyond high school: education and training
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
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Online enrollment at public two-year colleges has increased over the last decade and is expected to continue expanding in response to a changing labor market that requires frequent job changes and upskilling. Fully online courses and degree programs can provide accessible and flexible options for...