Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (SPAIN)
About this paper:
Appears in: INTED2011 Proceedings
Publication year: 2011
Pages: 1-2
ISBN: 978-84-614-7423-3
ISSN: 2340-1079
Conference name: 5th International Technology, Education and Development Conference
Dates: 7-9 March, 2011
Location: Valencia, Spain
The promise of online university education has met scepticism regarding academic quality and other challenges. One concern is that by traditional measures (e.g., % of first-time undergraduates obtaining a degree in 6 years), graduation rates are generally quite low at online universities – often hovering around 20%. Online university officials often combat such figures as inappropriate for their student body, and unreflective of the benefits to, and success of, their students. They often publish their own “more appropriate” measures of graduation rates and success. Such measures are insightful but do not usually allow comparison across universities. They may also be viewed as self-serving to the universities themselves.

This study uses a large student-body administrative data base of all students (currently over 58,000) at the Universtat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), an online university headquartered in Barcelona, with outposts across the globe including Latin America and other regions. The UOC has typical graduation rates of about 20%. We have administrative data on all students over a nine year period. After reviewing the literature on graduation rates in online universities, as well as other non-traditional universities like community colleges in the United States, we discuss the benefits and pitfalls of such measures for the typical student body of such institutions. We review those alternative measures that have been developed and propose several of our own (e.g., only counting students as actually matriculated after one year, etc.). We discuss the pros and cons of these measures from the point of view of accuracy, comparability, and marketability.

We use the administrative UOC data to explore in detail the implications of alternative measures, with a particular emphasis on matching the success of the student body (measured in various ways) with the success of the university (also measured in various ways). In addition, we consider the viewpoint of high-level administrators who must market, manage and support the institution. We do this in part through qualitative interviews with UOC senior administrators. We show how their needs may (not) correspond with the so-called objective measures of student and institutional success, and we incorporate such practicalities into our discussion.

Finally, we use a telephone survey of over 1700 graduates of the UOC, a representative sample of graduates from the years 2000 to 2003. These results allow us to drill down on the nature of the academic experience of graduates and, perhaps arguably, more relevant measures of success such as earnings and other lifetime outcomes. We use our analysis of these results to refine our discussion of graduation rates and alternative measures of success for online universities. We also differentiate our discussion and findings by the type and nature of program of study (e.g., 3-year technical computing engineer degrees, traditional 4 year undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, and shorter non-degree programs).

The study provides useful insights to scholars of online and other alternative university educational formats, administrators at online universities and at other more traditional universities increasingly adopting online components and programs, faculty and academic staff responsible for developing and monitoring curricula, policymakers and funders involved in fostering online learning as part of systems of higher education, and the like.
Online universities, graduation rates.