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Non Traditional Students, Women Excel at Online Classes


A new study may finally put to rest the long debate over whether online classes are as good as traditional residential learning. Research by Rowan University found that the key to completing a degree program depends on the type of student rather than the educational delivery method.

In the 2010 study the New Jersey based university measured student retention, which refers to whether a student who begins a course or a degree program completes that course or degree program.  The study revealed that certain types of student – the non-traditional, older, working mom and single parents who work full-time – stand a better chance of completing online classes than completing residential classes.

Real-life examples abound. Cecilia Parmer chose to pursue an online masters in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University after considering campus alternatives.

“If I did not have the option of changing the nights I would attend class or listen to recorded lectures, I would have long felt the pull of family responsibility over career goals and left further education behind,” says the 42-year-old New Jersey working mother. “Flexibility is something I require as my family and professional needs can vary.”

Non-traditional students in general, and physically disabled students in particular, are significantly more likely to complete online courses rather than traditional ones, the study found. The flexibility of online degree programs may also explaining why women, married students, and physically disabled students are much more likely to opt for distance learning classes: Online degree programs work best for these types of students. 

A recent survey by the Instructional Technology Council reported the number of women enrolling in distance learning programs at 2-year colleges at a record high: 63% of online course registrants.

Non traditional students such as native Americans do better in online classes than traditional courses

For Regina White, a 42-year-old mother of two in Fairbanks, Alaska, an online education was the only type of education that offered the flexibility required to pursue a bachelors degree in Social Work at the University of Alaska.  The native American, who has a slight disability, says “it is easier for me to learn from home. I am also able to study when I can instead of when I have to.” 



Students who prefer online courses are more satisfied with online education than they are with traditional classroom learning. And these satisfied students demonstrate a set of shared characteristics. Check this list to see if you are the type of student who is likely to benefit from a distance degree program:

  • Work full-time
  • Seek part-time enrollment in courses
  • Older (and did not attend college out of high school)
  • Financially independent
  • Primary caretaker for elderly dependents
  • Single parent (especially mom)

These same set of student characteristics have historically been more prevalent among students who demonstrate higher college drop-out rates in residential degree programs.

Researchers who study distance learning retention and online course drop-out rates say the primary reason online courses show higher drop-out rates is because distance learning degree programs attract and are marketed to higher risk non-traditional students.

Older non-traditional students, who work full-time and assume responsibility for childcare, especially single moms, are more likely to drop out of college. Higher drop-out rates persist with this population whether these students study online or on-campus.

In other words, it is not the delivery method – online versus face-to-face – that causes higher online course drop-out rates. It is the “type of student.” 

Older, non-traditional students with complex lives are more likely to encounter obstacles – overtime work, childcare, travel for work, poorly developed study skills and lack of college prep coursework – that make them vulnerable to having to stop courses midway through a semester or term of study.

Working mother and online student Rebecca DanielsonWhen non-traditional students opt for an online education they gain more control over the pace and timing of their learning.  “The online degree option offered me the opportunity to pursue my goal in achieving my degree while also meeting the demands of a home and work life balance,” said Rebecca Danielson of Fairview Heights, Illinois. The 32-year-old is attending Baker College Online where she is enrolled in a Bachelor of Science Business Administration – Human Resources Management. “As a full-time working mother, I am very limited in my availability to take classes in a traditional classroom setting,” she said.

The Rowan University study concluded that traditional 18-21 year-old students enrolled in college full-time may be more likely to drop out of online courses because they find campus learning more satisfying.