PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · May 14, 2014

Online Courses in Community Colleges See Major Growth—But Student Success Rates Lag

CCC offers more of these classes for credit than any public system in U.S.

SAN FRANCISCO, May 14, 2014—Online course enrollment in California’s Community Colleges (CCC) has grown remarkably in the last 10 years, with nearly 20 percent of the students who took courses for credit taking at least one online in 2012. However, students are less likely to complete an online course than a traditional course, and they are less likely to complete an online course with a passing grade. These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). It is based on longitudinal student and course level data from all 112 community colleges.

Online course enrollment at CCC—the nation’s largest postsecondary system—has increased by almost 1 million since 2002. Today the colleges offer more online courses for credit than any other public higher education institution in the nation. Online participation has increased among each of the state’s largest ethnic groups, although participation is uneven across groups. It is much lower for Latino students, in part a reflection of the digital divide. It is particularly high for African Americans, a group underrepresented in California higher education.

But overall online course success rates are lower than those for traditional courses. In 2012, 60.4 percent of all students enrolled in online courses completed them with a passing grade—10 percentage points lower than the average success rate of 70.6 percent in traditional courses. After the researchers control for differences among students and other factors, they find that those in online courses are at least 11 percentage points and as much as 14 percentage points less likely to successfully complete an online course than students in similar traditional classes.

Success rates in online courses are lower for all types of students, across a wide set of subjects, and across almost all community colleges. But some students perform worse than others. African Americans, Latinos, males, part-time students, and those under age 25 or with lower levels of academic skill are all likely to do markedly worse in online courses than in traditional ones. In online courses, achievement gaps are exacerbated—a key point because community colleges are an important access point for student groups underrepresented in higher education. For example, the achievement gap between white and African American students in traditional classes is 12.9 percentage points. In online courses, the gap is 17.5 points.

However, the long-term impact of online learning is better. Students are more likely to earn an associate’s degree, a vocational certificate, or transfer to a four-year college if they take at least some online courses. This is an indication that for some students—generally those who earn the most units—online learning offers the availability and flexibility to help them achieve their goals.

“Students overall are less successful in online courses than in traditional ones, but online learning is still an important tool that some are successfully using to achieve their college and career goals,” said Hans Johnson, co-author and PPIC Bren fellow. “It will be important to broaden that success to encompass the diverse population of community college students.”

The report makes recommendations for improving online learning, a topic of keen interest among policymakers and higher education officials.

  • Improve strategic planning and coordination. Online classes today vary widely across the system and across academic subjects, and course development depends primarily on faculty interest and initiative. With better planning, online courses could be used to satisfy unmet demand for traditional ones, particularly prerequisites and other classes that act as gatekeepers to success. Better coordination would allow online courses to be truly portable—with units earned at one college counting at another.
  • Review the quality of current online courses. Little is known now about the presentation of course material in community college online classes. Community colleges should consider implementing a standardized learning management system, which could provide a rich data source for instructors and administrators to assess student engagement and identify areas of improvement.
  • Target resources toward interventions that improve student outcomes. These strategies include ensuring high standards of quality for online courses, providing professional development for faculty to design and deliver the courses, and incorporating student support tools.
  • Systematically gather cost information. Policymakers who promote online learning often do so with the expectation that is less expensive. But evidence is lacking. The cost of developing and maintaining online courses is not collected now.

The report says that online learning has the potential to further increase student access and improve student outcomes. It cites the rapid increase of online course offerings and enrollment as strong evidence of the community colleges’ willingness to innovate.

“Online learning is still relatively new,” Johnson said. “With improved technology and a more strategic approach, California can make the most of its investments in online learning, for the benefit of students and the state.”

The report is titled Online Learning and Student Outcomes in California’s Community Colleges. It is co-authored by Marisol Cuellar Mejia, PPIC research associate. The report is supported with funding from the Donald Bren Foundation.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.