The percentage of college students who took at least one course through distance education rose from 16 percent in the 2003 to 2004 school year to 20 percent during the 2007 to 2008 school year, meaning that over 4 million students enrolled in at least one such class in the 2007 to 2008 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Distance education continues to expand, causing students and educators to question the effectiveness of such programs by scrutinizing factors such as graduation and dropout rates.


Graduation rate charts typically indicate the percentage of students who completed a degree or certificate program within 150 percent of the typically allotted time -- for example, within three years for an associate degree that usually takes about two years to complete. Schools that do not publish or submit data may not appear on such lists. For students beginning their programs in 2005, the larger online institutions with the best graduation rates included Pennsylvania State University's online program at 87 percent, the University of Florida's at 84 percent and George Washington University's at 81 percent. Statistically, Capella University, American Public University, Argosy University and the International Academy of Design and Technology published a zero-percent graduation rate for this period, indicating that no students completed their programs in the time frame. These numbers could reflect that their students took longer to finish, transferred to other institutions before graduating or dropped out of school.


Another potential indicator of a school's dropout rate is its retention rate, meaning the percentage of students not previously enrolled in college who enter a school one year and then continue to take classes at the same institution the next year. Some students who are not retained may transfer, but others leave school entirely. As of 2009, the online school reported to have the highest retention rate was the American Public University System, with eight percent of full-time and 47 percent of part-time students leaving. The school with the poorest retention that year was Capella University, indicating a loss of 80 percent of their full-time students and 71 percent of the part-timers.

Risk Factors

Students drop out of online schools for various reasons, the most common being family responsibilities and financial issues. Other risk factors include skipping one or more years between high school graduation and enrollment, failing to complete high school and enrolling part-time, as well as an age over 24 and a low socioeconomic status. All these factors also tend to appear in students who prefer online coursework. Therefore, higher dropout levels for online students may not necessarily reflect an issue with the instructional methods, since higher-risk students appear to be drawn to online learning even though evidence shows that dropout rates are higher for online coursework than for traditional course offerings.


Successful completion of an online course or degree may require negating these possible risk factors and creating positive habits. Students with children, for instance, may need to rely on family for babysitting, or those with jobs may need to cut back on hours. Students should enter distance learning courses knowing that success requires some technological knowledge, dedication and organization. Adhering to deadlines, creating a dedicated workspace and using library and tutoring services may prevent dropping out from an online school.

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