Poor Results from Online Courses

There are substantial differences in MOOCs and in online courses taken for credit from California Community Colleges (CACCs). MOOCs are most often free and seldom for credit. Whereas, CACC online courses charge a fee and can be used for credit toward a certificate or Associate’s Degree, and/or be transferred to four-year universities. Despite these differences, it is reasonable to infer that CACC results from for credit online classes could set a benchmark for MOOCs to achieve, if they are to realize their promise in expanding free online education.


The Public Policy Institute of California published Online Learning and Student Outcomes in California’s Community Colleges. Johnson & Mejia (2014) examined longitudinal data from 750,000 enrollments from all 112 CACCs and found that online course success rates are lower than traditional courses. Further online learning increased racial achievement gaps.

Online Ach Gap

In 2011–12, 79.4 percent of enrolled students completed online courses, compared to 85.9 percent of those enrolled in traditional courses. While 70.6 percent of traditional students passed their courses, only 60.4 percent of online students passed. This 10-point gap has remained unchanged over the past ten years. In every college and in every subject area, students are less likely to succeed in online courses than in traditional courses.


Online CC Success Rates



Despite these negative short-term findings, the authors point out a positive long-term trend that bolsters hope for the expansion and viability of the online learning model. About 38 percent of community college students in the sample completed at least 60 units. For these students, taking online courses was strongly associated with improved long-term success rates. This was not true for students who completed between 30 and 60 units, approximately 22 percent of the sample. In this group, those who took some units online had only slightly higher completion rates than those who took no online courses. Thus, Johnson & Mejia found that students who have taken an online course were more likely than those who have not to earn an associate’s degree or to transfer to a four-year university.

Long-term Outcomes

With approximately one million students, online enrollment represents nearly 11 percent of all community college course enrollments. Educators and policymakers are optimistic about online learning’s potential to either reduce costs, or offer greater access. Johnson & Mejia optimistically conclude that online performance gaps can be minimized with strategic planning, improved technology, and increased funding. These results from a large sample of online learners should inspire MOOC providers and online learning enthusiasts, for they offer important data points to consider when comparing success rates between MOOCs and formal online education programs. What are the factors that enable fee-based community college online courses to have 60 percent course passage rates, while MOOCs, which are free and offer no credit, struggle to get 5 percent of their enrollments to complete the class? What would the course passage rate be if MOOCs were introduced in the K12 education market where compulsory attendance requires students to remain enrolled until they are 18 years old?

Online learning has the potential to increase access to higher education and to improve student achievement. CACCs could receive $56.9 million over the next 4-5 years from Governor Brown’s Online Education Initiative (OEI). What educational outcomes should we expect for that level of investment? For online courses to disrupt the status quo in public education they need to be less expensive than traditional, face-to-face courses and they need to yield comparable, if not superior, student outcomes.


Johnson, H. & Mejia, M. (2014). Online learning and student outcomes in California’s community colleges. The Public Policy Institute of California. San Francisco, CA. Accessed at http://www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=1096