The Ambivalence About Distance Learning in Higher Education

Challenges, Opportunities, and Policy Implications
Living reference work entry
Part of the Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research book series (HATR, volume 35)


In the past two decades, one of the most important trends in the US higher education system has been the steady increase in distance education through online courses. College administrators have expressed strong support for online education, signaling that the current online expansion will likely continue. While the supply and demand for online higher education is rapidly expanding, questions remain regarding its potential impact on increasing access, reducing costs, and improving student outcomes. Does online education enhance access to higher education among students who would not otherwise enroll in college? Can online courses create savings for students by reducing funding constraints on postsecondary institutions? Will technological innovations improve the quality of online education? This chapter provides a comprehensive review of existing research on online learning’s impact on access, cost, and student performance in higher education. Our review suggests that online education has the potential to expand access to college, especially among adult learners with multiple responsibilities. Yet, the online delivery format imposes additional challenges to effective instruction and learning. Indeed, existing studies on college courses typically find negative effects of online delivery on course outcomes and the online performance decrement is particularly large among academically less-prepared students. As a result, online courses without strong support to students may exacerbate educational inequities. We discuss a handful of practices that could better support students in online courses, including strategic course offering, student counseling, interpersonal interaction, warning and monitoring, and the professional development of faculty. Yet, college administrative data suggests that high-quality online courses with high degrees of instructor interaction and student support cost more to develop and administer than do face-to-face courses.


Online learning Access to higher education Degree-granting institutions Cost Quality “50 percent rule” Funding for online education Reasons for taking online courses Characteristics of online course takers Supply of online courses and programs Demand for online coursework Exclusive online degree programs Student learning outcomes Challenges to effective online learning Community colleges Heterogeneous impact of online learning by student characteristics Design features of online courses Strategies to improve online education 



The research reported here was supported by the National Science Foundation, through Award 1750386 to University of California, Irvine. The authors are extremely grateful to Cody Christensen for his valuable comments and suggestions on this chapter. They also thank the staff at the American Enterprise Institute for their editorial support during this research project. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of NSF or AEI.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of California, IrvineIrvineUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Laura W. Perna
    • 1
  • Ann Austin
    • 2
  • Linda Eisenmann
  • Pamela Eddy
    • 3
  • Adrianna Kezar
    • 4
  • Anne-Marie Nunez
  • Shouping Hu
  • Anna Neumann
    • 5
  • Nicholas A Bowman
  • Marvin Titus
  • Nicholas Hillman
    • 6
  1. 1.Graduate School of EducationUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Michigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  3. 3.College of William and MaryWilliamsburgUSA
  4. 4.School of EducationUniversity of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA
  5. 5.Higher and Postsecondary EducationTeachers College, Columbia UniversityNew York CityUSA
  6. 6.University of WisconsinMadisonUSA

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