From The Periphery To Prominence: An Examination Of The Profile And Academic Outcomes Of Postsecondary Online Students

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Ortagus, Justin Charles
Graduate Program:
Higher Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 15, 2015
Committee Members:
  • John Jesse Cheslock, Dissertation Advisor
  • Liang Zhang, Committee Member
  • Neal H Hutchens, Committee Member
  • Timothy Grant Pollock, Special Member
  • online education
  • higher education
Online education has shifted from the margins to become an increasingly mainstream mode of instruction, but higher education leaders and policymakers lack generalizable evidence pertaining to the changing profile of online learners and the quality of online offerings (Bowen, 2013). My study examined this growing area of higher education in two parts. For Part One, I addressed which types of students are most engaged in online education, how student patterns of online course-taking vary across institution types, and how both student and institutional characteristics of online learners have changed over time. For Part Two, I provided empirical evidence to examine the impact of online education on the academic outcomes of postsecondary students across institution types. For Part One, I used cross-sectional data from four different editions of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012) and employed multinomial logit models for each year to describe the student and institutional characteristics of postsecondary online students. Between 2000 and 2012, these data revealed substantial growth in the proportion of online students in higher education. More specifically, the percentage of postsecondary students enrolled in some online courses increased from 3.35% in 2000 to 19.20% in 2012 while the proportion of postsecondary students enrolled in online-only programs increased from 2.24% to 7.45% during the same time period. For Part Two, I drew longitudinal data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (2004-2009) and ran several regression analyses to examine the impact of online enrollment on three-year credential completion, six-year credential completion, GPA, and community college transfers. Part One of this study reveals several interesting findings associated with the profile of postsecondary online learners. First, I found that student characteristics associated with the highest opportunity costs of engaging with residential education—such as being a full-time employee, parent, or married—were more likely to enroll in some online courses and online-only programs. Second, empirical evidence showed that historically underrepresented postsecondary students were typically not more likely to engage with online education. Third, I found that community college students were more likely to enroll in some (but not all) online courses, but my results pertaining to the likelihood of students at for-profit institutions to enroll in online-only programs were conflicted depending on the year being examined. Fourth, my findings suggest high-status colleges and universities appeared to be less likely to offer online courses or online-only programs. Finally, I found that Business and Health majors disproportionately increased their reliance on online education over time. Business majors were more likely to enroll in some online courses and online-only degree programs relative to their peers (p < .001), but Health majors were only more likely to engage with some online courses (p < .001). In general, empirical evidence from Part Two suggests a positive relationship between enrolling in some (but not all) online courses and sub-baccalaureate credential completion. For instance, community college students who enrolled in some online courses appeared to be more likely to earn an Associate’s degree within three years and six years relative to community college students who only enrolled in face-to-face courses.