Online Programs Don't Always Expand Access to Higher Education, Report Says

Low-income students often lack access to necessary technology, in what's called the "digital divide."

A new report suggests online programs block access for some students who can't afford the necessary technology.
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Online programs often promise to expand access to higher education by providing more flexible options for students to work at their own pace and offer degrees at a lower cost. But according to a new report from a national faculty organization, these programs may be blocking access to a group of students who could benefit the most from the flexibility they offer: low-income, adult and working students.

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That's because the technology required for online courses isn't always easily accessible or affordable for these students. Although the course may be cheaper than classroom-based courses, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education argues in a report released Wednesday low-income students might still have a harder time accessing it.

"We have to wrap our heads around the fact that we can't make assumptions that this will be so simple because everyone will just fire up their computers and do the work," says Lillian Taiz, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and president of the California Faculty Association.

Many students, Taiz says, don't have computers at home, high-speed Internet access, smart phones, or other technologies necessary to access course content.

"A student who has to come to campus to use campus computers is not getting any of the theoretical benefits of working at their own pace or working at home," says Taiz, a member of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education.

In its report, the third in a series examining the influence of private money in online education, the faculty organization cites a 2013 report from the U.S. Census Bureau analyzing computer and Internet use in the United States. In 2011, for example, about 76 percent of non-Hispanic white households and 83 percent of Asian households reported Internet use at home, compared with 58 percent of Hispanic households and 57 percent of black households.

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Similarly, about 57 percent of individuals living in low-income households (with incomes below $25,000) reported having a computer at home.

But aside from Internet access, another problem is aging and out-of-date computing power.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University – the first institution to run a federal government-backed competency-based online education program – says many times students run into problems when they can't run certain applications on their computers or don't have a webcam to communicate with instructors and peers.

"Getting online wasn't usually the issue, but having up-to-date equipment was," LeBlanc says.

But success in online courses is possible.

Ways to get around that issue, LeBlanc says, could include providing technical assistance to students struggling to access course content and subsidizing the cost of more affordable laptops. LeBlanc says providing more counseling and support for students, with advisors dedicated to tracking student activity in online courses, has contributed to the university's higher graduation rates. For online programs, the university has graduation rates of around 50 percent, which is close to the national graduation rate for students in campus-based programs (54 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse).

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Southern New Hampshire University is running a pilot program that provides online students with Google Chromebooks, which have built-in webcams and run about $200 a piece. If the program works well for students and the school, LeBlanc says the laptops would be incorporated into the cost of tuition so students receiving financial aid could still have access to them.

"At $200, they're cheaper than many textbooks," LeBlanc says. "And over the whole of a degree, it's a pretty great deal."

That's not to say, however, that online education won't work for anyone, Taiz says. Adult students with complicated lives, balancing work and family responsibilities, may benefit from the flexibility online courses offer. But those students need to be more mature and self-disciplined, Taiz says.