Publisher's note: The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal is a nonprofit institute dedicated to improving higher education in North Carolina and the nation. Located in Raleigh, North Carolina, it has been an independent 501(c)(3) organization since 2003. It was known as the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy until early January 2017.
The author of this post is Madeline Baker.
Distance education has expanded greatly thanks to the internet, making higher education accessible to non-traditional students. Distance-learners simply turn on their computers and join their online class to access lectures, readings, assignments, and more.
North Carolina is ahead of the nation in distance education. As of 2017, 91 percent of North Carolina colleges offered distance courses and 62 percent offered distance programs-which award full degrees or certificates-that can be earned completely online. The Tar Heel State is ahead of the national average: Only 84 percent of U.S. colleges offered distance courses, and 61 percent offered distance programs in 2017.
Students like distance education because it's flexible; they can pursue a degree while they work or take care of their family. While tuition isn't cheaper
for online classes, students don't have to pay for room, board, or other expenses associated with traditional college life.
Unfortunately, students often overestimate just how flexible distance learning is and underestimate the amount of work
required to earn a degree. Research suggests that distance education expands access to education
, but retention rates for distance learners are lower than retention rates for traditional students.
Students who take a mixture of online and on-campus courses are generally successful, but students who take exclusively online courses tend to drop out before completing their degree.
For some students, distance education is the best option. North Carolina colleges have shown their ability to be flexible and adapt to student demand even as other states lag behind. But more can be done to ensure students understand the risks of doing an online program.
Madeline Baker is a summer intern with the Martin Center. She is pursuing a bachelor of science in International Economics and Finance with a minor in Spanish at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.