|Photo: Shanna Smith Jaggars|
|Photo: Washington Post|
Free higher education sounds like good news for the millions of low-income Americans who struggle to pay for college. After all, those with a college degree earn more, and are far less likely to be unemployed, than those who get no further than high school. Yet for low-income families, the average annual cost of attending college now equals 84 percent of their income.
But so far, it doesn’t look like free online courses are the solution. For one thing, it doesn’t seem that low-income students are taking advantage of the thousands of classes available. One study of Harvard MOOCs found that registrants were significantly more likely to live in high-income neighborhoods and have college-educated parents. An analysis of Penn State MOOCs found that the vast majority of its American students — over 85 percent — already had a college degree.
Our studies of online education at community colleges in two states reveal a related pattern. Online students were less likely to be low-income, ethnic minorities, or academically under-prepared. Instead, they tended to be older than 25, white and fully employed. Generally, they took one or two courses online per semester, but filled out the rest of their schedule with courses in a traditional “face-to-face” setting.
One reason low-income students are less likely to enroll in online courses may be the digital divide in this country. Black, Hispanic and low-income households are less likely to have high-speed Internet than those that are White, Asian, or high income. The same is true for rural households.
In addition, many students don’t particularly like online courses. A recent survey of community college students who had taken an online class found that more than 40 percent felt they learned less in online than traditional courses. Only 3 percent thought they learned more. A large percentage of students who had enrolled in online classes reported wishing they could take fewer of them. And community college students are far more likely to withdraw from online classes — in some subjects, up to twice as frequently. (Even some MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT have dismal completion rates, some as low as 5 percent.)
Source: Washington Post