Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The potential equity risks in online education

A friend posted a link in her Facebook profile to an article this week in Inside Higher Ed that described the Education Department's funding for free, online college courses. I responded that I had mixed feelings about the program and in the push toward more online education in general, raising concerns about the potential for more stratification in what is already a highly bifurcated postsecondary system in the country. My friend works on online education, and asked me to elaborate on my remarks. So I decided this would be the appropriate place to do so.

It's helpful to understand first how the current postsecondary system is stratified. This stratification is on a number of dimensions, including racial/ethnic, family income, as well as other measures of socioeconomic status and academic capital, but I'll focus here just on income. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the data branch of the U.S. Department of Education, has very good, nationally-representative surveys that allow us to examine whether different types of students attend postsecondary education, and if so, where they attend.

The current NCES longitudinal survey, the Educational Longitudnal Survey of 2002 (ELS:2002), is of students who were sophomores in high school in 2002. After the initial survey in 2002, students were surveyed again in 2004 (when most were high school seniors), and in 2006 (two years after expected high school graduation). The 2006 data were analyzed in an NCES report to examine the high school graduation and postsecondary behavior of students. The following chart summarizes the findings for students based on their familiy's income in 2002 (you can click on the image to get a full-size view):

As a benchmark, the median family income in 2002 was $51,680, so the first two income categories roughly represent the bottom half of the income distribution, and the latter two the top half.

As is clear, the high school graduation and postsecondry enrollment patterns are highly stratified by income. Seventeen percent of students in the bottom income group (<=$20,000) either did not graduate from high school and/or received a GED credential, while only three percent of the highest income group (>=$100,000) did. While only 52 and 63 percent of students in the bottom two income groups, respectively, had some postsecondary enrollment by 2006, 78 and 90 percent of students in the highest income groups did. What is even more stark is where students attended college. Students in the upper income category were more than three times more likely to enroll in a 4-year institution than were those in the bottom group.

When you dig into the data, other patterns emerge. The following chart is from a presentation I gave last year at the annual conference of the Council for Opportunity in Education. It shows the college attendance patterns of dependent undergraduates who were enrolled in college in the 2003-2004 school year, using data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (I need to update these with the most recent NPSAS data, but haven't gotten around to it yet).

These data divide all postsecondary students into family income quartiles. Over half of the students from the bottom quartile who were enrolled in college were attending either a community college or some other institution, the latter of which were primarily proprietary (for-profit) institutions. The higher income students were more likely to be attending a 4-year institution, and more likely to be attending full-time as well.

Okay, so having established the current stratified nature of the higher education system in the country, let me get back to my concerns regarding online education. When I speak to many policymakers, particularly those at the state level, there is a strong belief among many that online education will be the silver bullet that will help resolve the college cost crisis, as well as improving the state of college access. In other words, they believe that if we can only expand online education, we'll be able to get more students into and through postsecondary education for less money.

At some point, this may be true, but I don't believe there's compelling data yet to demonstrate that online education - in a true apples-to-apples comparison - is necessarily lower cost than traditional bricks-and-mortar postsecondary education (NB - I'm going to ignore the question for now of whether fully online education is "as good as" traditional education in terms of educational outcomes, writ large. I think my points are made even if one concedes this point). And more importantly, from my standpoint, I am concerned that if online education is perceived to be less expensive, that we will end up with a system that channels poor and underrepresented minority students into this option, reserving for more well-off students the option of attaining a postsecondary credential, and in particular a bachelor's degree, by attending a residential institution where the students benefits from all of the amenities and outcomes that are associated with that experience.

It is easy to envision of a set of student financing policies that would have this further stratification as an unintended consequence. Many states are examining policies that encourage students to start their postsecondary careers at community colleges, which are a lower cost (from the perspective of state funding) and price (from the perspective of the student) option as compared to many 4-year institutions, both public and private alike. In the same vein, they are looking into policies that help reduce both the opportunity cost of attending college (primarily that of being out of the labor markets, at least as a full-time worker) as well as the subsistence costs of attending college by finding options to the residential college experience. While these are certainly worthwhile exercises, I generally advise them to undertake these while ensuring that postsecondary opportunity and access to all the options that are available - community college, online education, and the more traditional, residential 4-year experience - are provided to students on as equal a basis as possible, regardless of their family's financial circumstances.

I am not arguing here that we should get rid of online education; I believe that there is certainly a place for it in our system. I think we do need much more and better research, however, that compares the full range of outcomes - academic, psychosocial, and developmental - of all the options before we start investing a lot more money in online education. But we need to be cautious that we do not create a system that is even more bifurcated than the one we already have in place.

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