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The Unexpected Reasons Community College Students Choose Online Courses

by Heather L. Fox / Feb 6, 2017

Negative experiences on campus may encourage nontraditional community colleges students to enroll in online courses.

Twenty-five percent of community college students are enrolled in one or more online courses each semester, with nearly half of all community college students having taken at least one fully online course as part of their postsecondary studies (American Association of Community Colleges, 2014). To better understand the factors that influence students’ decision to participate in online education and the process for selecting courses to take online, I interviewed a voluntary sample of 18 community college students who were enrolled in at least one online course. Findings from this study are summarized in OCCRL’s newest Insights on Equity and Outcomes brief, What Motivates Community College Students to Enroll Online and Why It Matters.

The findings of this study primarily support the existing literature on students’ motivations to engage in online coursework (see Aslanian & Clinefelter, 2013; Brinkerhoff & Koroghlanian, 2007; Jaggars, 2014; Wyatt, 2005), specifically, that students enrolled in online education as a strategy to balance a multiplex of activities and responsibilities, most notably those associated with work and family. Further, students viewed the flexibility in scheduling offered by online education as a mechanism that allowed them to manage the multiple demands on their time and schedules as well as approach the material at their own pace. For these students, managing their schedules was also about managing their identities. Students expressed that their roles as parents, spouses, children, employees, volunteers, entrepreneurs/business owners, congregants, etc. were important to them, and online education allowed them to retain their goals as a student while minimizing the impact on these other identities. This flexibility was also reflected in students’ descriptions of the ability in online coursework to work at an individualized pace. Students described this individualized pace both in terms of balancing the pace of their education with other life events and in terms of engaging with the materials at a pace that allowed for mastery of the subject without being delayed or stigmatized by their peers. Finally, students sought to capitalize on the time and fiscal costs associated with their coursework.

Campus environment is not a factor impacting online course enrollment that has been explicitly identified in the existing literature. This factor was raised by half of the students in this study as being a key factor in students’ choosing to enroll in online courses. Students related not feeling valued, respected, or otherwise comfortable on campus based on their age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or status as a parent. This sentiment did not reflect a preference for online education, nor did it reflect a belief that online education was in any way associated with superior learning outcomes. In fact, the students in this study indicated they preferred when possible to take courses they perceived as difficult and having a high value in face-to-face settings. This use of online education as a means of avoiding negative campus environments may explain in part why students who enroll in online courses at community colleges are more likely to be 26 years or older, parents, employed, female, and racially diverse than those who enroll in traditional face-to-face courses only (Hyllegard, Deng, & Gall, 2008; Radford, 2011; Reisetter & Boris, 2004; Tanner, Noser, & Totaro, 2009; Wyatt, 2005).

Students were strategic about the courses they chose to take online. Students chose courses based on what they had come to expect and what they perceived as the benefits and drawbacks of online education, in conjunction with their own skills and knowledgebase and the value they placed on the individual courses. Specifically, there were four factors identified that influenced students’ selection of what courses to take online: a) perceived difficulty, b) familiarity with online coursework, c) social and academic interactions, and d) relative value of the course. Courses more closely aligned with the student’s interests and goals were perceived as having more value. Students referred to courses with a high relative value as more important and essential and typically prioritized taking these classes face-to-face on campus.

The combined effect of the factors identified in this study raise concerns about the root of attrition and retention issues for these students. Half of the students interviewed for this study shared that they were taking online courses to avoid negative experiences on campus. These perceptions seem to stem from a combination of students’ self-perceptions of being different from the stereotypical undergraduate student, or what is sometimes termed the traditional student, as well as from the first-hand experiences of microaggressions and other discriminatory behaviors. This in combination with the social and academic isolation that students expressed experiencing in online courses, are unlikely to reinforce their identity as students or their relationship with the institution. Further, higher levels of attrition from online coursework may reflect that students select courses to take online they feel are both less difficult and less valuable to them.

The design of online courses will remain a critical part of students’ success in their online courses. It is clear that online courses should be designed to support students’ need for flexibility. Students use online education as a functional strategy to balance multiple important activities and responsibilities, including work and family. Integrating flexibility into the course design gives students power to adjust their schedules and the pace of learning to respond to unanticipated events (such as a family member’s illness or a change in their work schedule). Additionally, administrators and faculty are encouraged to integrate culturally competent pedagogical practices into both online and on-campus courses.

To improve retention and completion, however, administration, faculty, and staff will need to work collaboratively to address nontraditional students’ perceptions of the campus environment. A multi-pronged approach that addresses both pedagogical environments and the broader campus environment would promote positive learning environments for students both on and off campus. Administrators, faculty, and staff are encouraged to work towards creating learning environments both online and on campus that support meaningful interactions among diverse students and faculty groups. This includes raising awareness about discriminatory behaviors, including microaggressions, and demonstrating a low tolerance for these behaviors. Campus leadership, faculty, and staff are encouraged to promote an inclusive image of who is a college student. The existing predominant image of a college student is not reflective of the body of students on community college campuses. By changing students’ perceptions of who are students at the colleges, you can both reduce the stigma felt by nontraditional students and acknowledge their identity as a student. Finally, colleges are encouraged to engage with diverse groups of students to both understand their experiences of campus and support their efforts to create an inclusive and supporting learning environment.


  • American Association of Community Colleges. (2014). 2014 fact sheet. Washington, DC: Author.
  • Aslanian, C. B., & Clinefelter, D. L. (2013). Online college students 2013: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.
  • Brinkerhoff, J., & Koroghlanian, C. M. (2007). Online students’ expectations: Enhancing the fit between online students and course design. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 36(4), 383-93.
  • Hyllegard, D., Deng, H., & Hunter, C. (2008). Why do students leave online courses? Attrition in community college distance learning courses. International Journal of Instructional Media, 35(4), 429-424.
  • Jaggars, S. S. (2014). Choosing between online and face-to-face courses: Community college student voices. The American Journal of Distance Education, 28(1), 27-38. doi:10.1080/08923647.2014.867697
  • Radford, A. W. (2011). Learning at a distance: Undergraduate enrollment in distance education courses and degree programs. (No. NCES 2012-154). Washington, DC: United States Department of Education.
  • Reisetter, M., & Boris, G. (2004). What works: Student perceptions of effective elements in online learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 5(4), 277-291, 309.
  • Tanner, J. R., Noser, T. C., & Totaro, M. W. (2009). Business faculty and undergraduate students’ perceptions of online learning: A comparative study. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(1), 29-40.
  • Wyatt, G. (2005). Satisfaction, academic rigor and interaction: Perceptions of online instruction. Education, 125(3), 460-468.
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