Investigating the Impact of Online Classes on Undergraduate Degree Completion

Concurrent Session 7

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This study examined the impact of online courses on student success and graduation rates, finding that taking online courses significantly increased students’ likelihood of completing their degree, with significant but small impacts on student grades. We’ll review and discuss the relevant literature, study methodology, results, and implications for further research.

Sponsored By


Sharon Wavle is Associate Director of Decision Support and Reporting for the Office of Online Education at Indiana University, and currently serves as Vice-President of the Indiana Association for Institutional Research (INAIR). She is responsible for university-wide reporting and analysis of online education data. Sharon has presented her work in data management and business intelligence for online education at OLC Accelerate, the national Association for Institutional Research (AIR) Forum conference, the Indiana Association for Institutional Research (INAIR) conference, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) Summit for Online Leadership, and the Alteryx Inspire conference.

Extended Abstract

Purpose of the Study:

In recent years, the number of students taking online classes has increased at rates of 20-28% per year, despite slight decreases in the overall number of students in higher education. While students are embracing online education at increasing rates, faculty still question the quality of online classes and their role in higher education. Existing research on the impact of online classes on student success has focused primarily on state and national community college data. While early studies found negative impacts on retention, completion, and grades, later studies have been more positive.

The purpose of this study is to examine the impact of online classes on degree completion rates of undergraduates at a multi-campus 4-year university. Specifically, this study addresses the following research questions:

  1. Does taking one or more online classes increase the likelihood that a first-time, full-time undergraduate student will complete their degree within 150% of the stated program length?
  2. Is there a difference in student performance between online and on campus classes?


We conducted a quantitative analysis of existing undergraduate student enrollment and graduation rate data at Indiana University to determine the impact of online courses on degree completion. The study examined the fall 2010 full-time, first-time undergraduate students as maintained in official university census files. Graduation rate statistics were paired with enrollment and grade data to determine the number of online and on campus credit hours and quality points for each student in the cohort.

Degree completion data was explored comparing students who took one or more online classes to those who did not.  Descriptive analyses were grouped by three campus types: traditional flagship campus, urban research campus, and regional campuses, consistent with traditional demographic groups at the university. A logistic regression was conducted in order to examine the impact of online classes on student degree completion rates. To determine whether student performance was different in online and on campus courses, paired samples t-tests were conducted.


Demographic analysis of the fall 2010 cohort indicated that the students taking one or more online class differed significantly from those who did not take online classes with respect to residency, Pell/Stafford recipients, gender, first generation status, SAT/ACT score, and 1st semester GPA. There was no difference between these groups in age or underrepresented minority status. Students in the cohort who took one or more online class were more likely to be in-state residents, Pell/Stafford recipients, female, first generation students with lower SAT/ACT composite scores yet higher first semester GPAs.

In examining research question #1, the logistic regression results suggest taking one or more online classes increases the likelihood of on-time degree completion for students regardless of campus type. Students taking online classes at the traditional flagship campus were 2.7 times more likely to complete their degree within 150% of the stated program length. Students at the regional campuses who took one or more online class were 6.2 times more likely to complete their degree. Students at the urban campus taking online classes were 8.1 times more likely to complete their degree. Looking at research question #2, results comparing online and on campus course GPAs showed mixed results. At the traditional flagship and urban campuses, students had slightly higher GPAs in online classes, while at the regional campuses, online GPAs were slightly lower. Although statistically significant, the differences were small and could be considered practically insignificant, particularly if the online courses helped students complete their degrees on time.

Presentation Format:

This presentation will provide an overview of the entire research process, beginning with the literature review used as the basis for the study. We will examine the research questions, the methodology (including research design, data sources, and data analysis methods), and the results. Discussion of the study findings will link back to prior research as well as look forward to the need for additional study.