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New study shows online learning can boost equity in higher education

Working paper co-authored by Lauren Sartain doctoral student Wesley Morris shows UNC System students took a mix of in-person and online courses before the pandemic

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, online education was growing rapidly. Groundbreaking new research finds almost 40% of students in the University of North Carolina System took at least one class online in 2019. This approach to education at public institutions, and the increased flexibility that goes along with it, has the potential to address equity issues around who can participate in higher education.

The new study — “The Expanding Landscape of Online Education: Who Engages and How They Fare” — authored by UNC School of Education faculty member Lauren Sartain, Ph.D., doctoral student Wesley Morris, and Lisa Barrow, Ph.D., at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago investigates the patterns and impacts of remote learning across the 17-school UNC System from 2012 to 2020, leading up to the pandemic. Its findings reveal many college students take a mix of online and in-person classes, providing flexibility that benefits those students in terms of improved GPAs.

This research is the first to look at the rates and impact of online college courses at a large, diverse public system.

“While the pandemic necessitated a move to online learning, this research shows that UNC System schools were already offering a mix of in-person and online learning options,” Sartain said. “And that combination was ultimately beneficial to student learning.

“There’s certainly more to explore since the pandemic has accelerated and entrenched online learning. Now we need to be asking, ‘How can we better help students leverage the flexibility of online course options to succesfully earn their degree or whichever credential they seek?'”

Among the takeaways:

  • In fall 2012, 22% of UNC System undergraduates took some or all courses online; seven years later, that number was 37%. (The pandemic would push the national figure over 80% in 2020.
    • Female and older students were especially likely to take online classes, suggesting that these students may need the additional flexibility online courses offer.
  • Online course takers were more likely to earn As in online courses compared to their in-person courses, but they were also more likely to fail online classes.
    • Overall, student GPAs across all of their classes increased during terms when they took at least one course online. This evidence suggests that online classes allow students to reoptimize their efforts across courses during the term, resulting in better grades.
  • Ultimately, engaging in online course-taking did not improve a student’s likelihood of graduating from college but didn’t hurt it either.

The findings suggest that while online course offerings may provide students valuable flexibility, additional supports may be needed to translate increased online learning opportunities into higher graduation rates.

The paper is available on the Chicago Fed website.

This study is part of the North Carolina Education Futures Initiative (NCEFI), a multi-disciplinary initiative that is data-driven, evidence-based, policy-focused, and action-oriented. NCEFI brings together community partners and faculty affiliates with expertise in education policy and rigorous research methods from across academic disciplines — including Education, Public Policy, Economics, and Sociology — to identify, answer questions, and develop programs that are critically important to North Carolina’s efforts to improve educational opportunity and economic development. Its work focuses on conducting timely and rigorous research on pressing policy topics and translating that research and expertise into action and practices through partnerships and technical assistance. NCEFI is led by Matthew Springer, Ph.D., the Robena and Walter E. Hussman Jr. Distinguished Professor of Education Reform at the UNC School of Education, and Andrew Kelly, Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy at the University of North Carolina System Office, and made possible by the John M. Belk Endowment. It is a joint initiative between the School of Education and the Department of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

About the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago is one of 12 regional Reserve Banks that, along with the Board of Governors in Washington, D.C., make up the nation’s central bank. The Chicago Reserve Bank serves the Seventh Federal Reserve District, which encompasses the northern portions of Illinois and Indiana, southern Wisconsin, the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, and the state of Iowa. In addition to participation in the formulation of monetary policy, each Reserve Bank supervises member banks and bank holding companies, provides financial services to depository institutions and the U.S. government, and monitors economic conditions in its District.