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JENKINS: To increase college completion, online classes may not be best solution

The latest buzzword in higher education is "completion," which combines the idea of enrollment growth with what we used to call "retention."

This is really nothing new. We've been focused on increasing enrollment since I started working in higher education more than 25 years ago, and we've also spent countless hours talking about how to do a better job of retaining and graduating students. The results have been mixed, at best.

But now the government is getting involved. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has publicly lamented the fact that college completion rates in this country have lagged over the past couple of decades, with the U.S. falling from first place to ninth among industrialized nations.

President Obama has made completion a key component of his education policy, promising that America will "once again (lead) the world in college graduation rates by the end of this decade."

And governors and state higher education leaders have begun hinting strongly -- and in some cases, more than hinting -- that future funding for colleges will be tied to graduation rates rather than to enrollment, as has traditionally been the case.

As a result, states from Georgia to Washington have gotten on board with the federal college completion agenda. And nearly all of them have decided that one of the best ways to increase completion rates is by offering more classes online.

As they say, therein lies the rub. It may be true that, by increasing access, online classes can help with the first part of the completion equation, enrollment growth. But getting students into school is not the same thing as getting them through with a degree.

When it comes to the latter, there is compelling evidence that online classes may actually hinder more than help.

In a pair of studies conducted between 2010 and 2011, researchers at Columbia University tracked tens of thousands of two-year college students in Washington State and Virginia, finding that those "who took online coursework ... were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and ... less likely to attain an educational award."

They concluded, "Some evidence ... suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students."

In other words, for those students who are least likely to complete college -- the very students at whom the college completion agenda is aimed -- online classes may actually have the opposite of the desired effect.

Before we decide that herding more students into online classes is the answer to all our educational woes, maybe we need to look a little closer at the data. And maybe it wouldn't hurt to inject a little common sense into the discussion, as well.

After all, it's just possible that what the most at-risk students really need to help them graduate is a real live campus with real live people to guide them through.

Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and college professor. Email him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.