Do Retention Rates at Online Colleges Differ from Retention Rates at Traditional Universities?

For the past decade, student enrollment in online courses has grown faster than the overall enrollment throughout conventional higher education, with more than 6.7 million American students now taking at least one course online annually. With the incredible boost in support for online colleges, students are able to benefit from unparalleled convenience and flexibility to complete their courses at their own pace in their already hectic schedule. However, students who are considering attending an online college need to take into consideration the metrics of the school’s retention rate, which is the number of first-time enrolled students who remain in their studies the next year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, retention rates are vital data that is indicative of the college’s ability to engage students in their learning, satisfy their student’s educational needs, and prevent them from dropping out. The following will discuss how online colleges are currently measuring up to their traditional university counterparts in retaining students for multiple years.

Retention Rates: Online vs. Traditional

Generally, the retention rates for online courses have been calculated to be 10 to 20 percent lower than the retention rates for their in-person counterparts on a traditional college campus. Although online schools vary greatly in their abilities to retain and engage students, the averages for the ten largest online education institutions are well below the national average for all conventional schools for both full-time and part-time students. The U.S. News and World Report states that the average retention rate among first-time full-time students at online colleges is 55 percent and the average retention rate among first-time part-time students is 39 percent. In comparison, the national average for students at traditional universities is significantly higher at 77 percent and 46 percent respectively.

Furthermore, researchers at the Columbia’s Community College Research Center conducted a study to track the enrollment history of 51,000 community college students throughout the state of Washington for five years. Published in 2011 in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the study found course retention rates among online students was eight percent lower than those of conventional college students. Researchers concluded that online college freshmen were more likely to drop out of college due to a lack of connection to campus, distance from peers, technical difficulties, lack of motivation, and personal obligations.

Online Retention Rates on the Rise?

Although the average for retention rates at online schools remains lower than traditional universities, it is important to note that there have been recent spikes in retention rates for some. For instance, the eCore online education portal from the University System of Georgia has realized an 11 percent growth in half a decade to reach an 83 percent retention rate. At the University of West Georgia, student success teams have boosted the retention rate from 68 percent in 2007 to an impressive 92 percent in 2012. In fact, the university saw online course retention rates surpass those of face-to-face courses for the first time in history. Boise State University in Idaho has also instituted a new “online bootcamp” for freshmen that has caused retention rates to increase by more than 30 percent as well.

While some online colleges are struggling to improve their retention rates, other online schools have noticed significant improvements in retention rates that have even exceeded traditional universities and are definitely worth looking into. For students considering online college education, it is essential to check the retention and graduation rates for schools with the U.S. News and World Report before making the final decision.