Trina Jordan, a 49-year-old single mom from Nashville, Tenn., was always aware of her race in college.
As an African-American undergraduate at Tennessee State University, a historically black school, she felt like other students were judging her for her dark skin. But that all changed when she signed up for an online master's degree in professional studies at Middle Tennessee State University. There, Jordan was comfortable with her virtual classmates – and her skin color – in ways she never was in an on-campus setting.
"With an online course, nobody knows who you really are," says Jordan, who works for the Tennessee Board of Regents, the state's higher education system. "They don't know your ethnicity unless you have a picture on your profile. I felt like, 'I can do this. There is no one stereotyping me.'"
Jordan, who successfully completed her program in 2011, is one of many minority students taking advantage of the growing number of online offerings in the U.S. But the programs aren't for everyone. While e-learning may be a great opportunity for some minority students, experts suggest they consider several factors, including academic services and the opportunity to connect with other students, before deciding to get a virtual degree.
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Online learning is often more academically rigorous than on-campus programs, experts say, and minority students should be sure they are academically prepared to take on the workload. In one recent study looking at 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington, for example, researchers from Columbia University's Teachers College found that males, younger students, black students and students with lower grade-point averages struggled more than other students to adapt to online courses.
While black students already have a grade-point average disadvantage when it comes to face-to-face learning, that difference is magnified in an online learning environment, says Shanna Jaggers, co-author of the report. In online courses, black students in the study showed a grade-point average of a half a point lower than their peers.
"A lot of ethnic minorities come from households where they are the first in the family to attend college," Jaggers says. "They don’t have a lot of information from their parents or siblings about what college is like. They are truly navigating it on their own and a lot of them feel a lack of confidence. They need a lot of support and guidance and connection and they feel like it is more difficult to get that in online courses."
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That sentiment is echoed by Robbie K. Melton, an administrator at the Tennessee Board of Regents who has taught online courses and worked with minorities in online education for years.
Melton, who is African-American, says it's imperative that minority students considering an online program find a school that provides online academic support, such as tutoring, as well as counseling and advising services.
"This would be beyond basic technical support of, 'I'm having troubles logging on,'" says Melton, associate vice chancellor of e-learning and emerging mobilization technology at the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Jordan, the former Middle Tennessee State University student, agrees.
"I think some minorities are afraid of online courses because if they need help they don't know where to go for help," she says. "And that can be a downfall."
While minority students encounter the same obstacles that all students face with online learning, Melton says minority students she surveyed over the years reported having more challenges than their peers with time management, technical skills and the isolated nature of online learning. The more minority students network with their peers and work in groups, the more successful they are, she says.
At first, Jordan hated the idea of group work. But at the end, she says, it was key to keeping her engaged in the program. "I liked it because where I was weak in some things, others were stronger," she says.
The benefits of online education are much the same for minority students as they are for the general population, experts say: Online learning offers flexibility, helping students work, travel or take care of their families while they learn.