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Community Participant

Success Rates for Online Students

I am trying to find some national stats about success rates for students in online courses. The most current information I have been able to find is 2014 and is based on California community colleges. Does anyone know where I can find some national stats on this subject? I'm interested to know how our online course success rate stacks up against a national average.

23 Replies

Hi Andrea, can you go a little further on what success means for your purposes? For example, I'm thinking it could mean...

  • Online student grades / outcomes 
  • Completion / attrition rates in online courses
  • Completion rates in fully online programs

Also, would you be looking to compare online to f2f?

Community Champion

Not directly related to the question of online versus face-to-face, but I have to give a shoutout to  @kona ‌ for her tracking student success and completion rates during the process of redesigning her courses with student-centered design strategies. The results are so encouraging! I included her numbers in a post I wrote about her presentation at InstCon:

13. Our Coach Kona 

And you can find out all about her redesign here:

Energize your class with Student-Centered Course Design 

To me, those are the most powerful kinds of stats because you can feel more confident about just what is getting compared, even if it is an admittedly limited study. When you start doing campus-wide or system-wide studies, I'm not really sure that what we are measuring is what-we-really-want-to-measure. 🙂

Thanks for the shout out laurakgibbs! I'll be honest that I haven't really looked at (or for) national retention rates recently. At my College though there is no statistical difference in retention (staying in the course) and success (completing with a C or better grade) between our online and traditional courses. This is something we're pretty proud of and have worked hard to achieve. As for my own online course, I've also implemented some fun/cool things that greatly improved the success of my online stats students. Ex: Before 18% A, 31% B, 48% C --> Last Semester 39% A, 50% B, 12% C. And this was without lowering the standards or rigor of the course. 🙂

Hope you are able to find the information you're looking for!


Community Participant

Hi Jared,

I'm looking for all of the above. I've been reading a lot lately about the fact that success rates (grades of A, B, C, and P) in online courses trail behind those same f2f courses by about 10%, but I can't seem to find specific studies for those numbers. I've also seen averages of around 60% success for online and 70% success for f2f, but I think what I've seen has been based mainly on California community colleges from a 2014 study. 

I recently read this article in the Chronicle ( that talked about the paradox that success rates are lower for online courses, but that students who take at least one online course are more likely to graduate. It made me start looking at those numbers for our institution and trying to find them nationally or even at the state level (I'm in Missouri) to compare. That's proving difficult. I transitioned from a faculty position into Director of Online Learning this spring and am just now really able to get into the weeds with the numbers. I was hoping someone could help point me in the direction of some good studies.

Community Coach
Community Coach

Hi  @acompton 

I think that Mark Twain said it best, " There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics!" Now this might not seem helpful to the questions you are seeking answers for, but it is very important. Statistics provide only a "what", and seldom a "why"!  Statistics can also be particularly holistic, lumping all sorts of stuff into one container, then saying that the entire  container is flawed. A good example pertinent to your question is that most stats on online persistence, retention and completion lump all online formats together, seldom distinguishing fully online from hybrid, from web-enhanced. At my own school, our hybrid online course out perform f2f courses by an average of 7% - every time, term after term.

Statistics also never examine any cause/effect relationships for discrepancies in persistence, retention and completion. Silly things like: how well are teachers trained to use the tech, how to design effective courses, and how to understand effective online pedagogy? How well are students oriented to the tech, and the differences between online learning and traditional learning. Do students have access to reliable technology (devices and software), and reliable internet access? Is there equivalent learner support between online and f2f learning? All of these factors can contribute to statistical variances that are significant, yet in many respects do not reflect the true effectiveness of online learning when all factors are equal.

Now,  @jared ‌ has already chimed in to this discussion, and that is a good thing. I don't know if you are familiar with Jared and his role at Instructure, but I can assure you that his focus has always been the human side of tech, and that tech is just a tool to deliver teaching. He is also very current in the literature, so he should be able to help with your lit search.


Community Participant

Hi  @kmeeusen ,

I completely agree about statistics and believe you can make numbers say anything you want, generally speaking. And I also agree wholeheartedly that these studies rarely do a good job of taking into account things like teach-readiness of students, academic preparedness, and motivation for taking online courses in the first place. Unfortunately, for reporting purposes, most reporting bodies ask for numbers and stats, so that is why I'm on this quest as well. 

It sounds like you all have the formula right with your online program for sure. I think hybrid is a great option, and I'm hoping to get more of our faculty to consider trying hybrid with some of their current f2f courses. I think they mix of the two modes of delivery give students a great experience. Our online courses currently have a success rate of 73%. That is averaged over the last 3 academic years.

Community Participant

 @kona ,

You should be proud! It sounds like you've done some incredible things, and your success in your online stats look great. Would you be willing to share any of the fun/cool things you've implemented?


Rather than looking at delivery modes as being determining factors (I think that is the flaw behind all of these studies; they focus on delivery mode without examining course design), my guess is that you will get the biggest boost from working on the way people are teaching within any delivery mode. Student-centered design is one approach that has enormous power to improve completion rates and other measures of success, and the way you are able to use student-centered design is going to vary based on the delivery mode, the size of the class, the specific learning goals, the characteristics of the students, and on and on. As Kona's experiment shows, the shift to a student-centered design approach can have a big impact, so if you want to raise that 73% completion rate for online, I would suggest that what you would need to do is look at each class and see how it is, or is not, using student-centered course design principles, getting feedback from your students constantly throughout the courses about what they think could improve the experience.

Kona's work is amazing! There is a super-abundance of very specific (and generalizable!) advice in that presentation she did at Instcon 🙂