The Effect of Membership in an Online Cohort Major on Baccalaureate Degree Completion

The Effect of Membership in an Online Cohort Major on Baccalaureate Degree Completion

Mary Dobransky (Bellevue University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0115-3.ch009


Attaining an undergraduate college degree contributes to increased employment opportunities and greater compensation, yet many students who enroll fail to graduate within six years, including a growing number of online students. One promising model for increasing retention is cohort education, in which students take multiple courses together as a group. This chapter uses a quantitative data analysis to examine the relationship between membership in an online cohort major and degree completion of baccalaureate students. The study population includes students at a Midwestern university that offers online programs in cohort and non-cohort formats. Study results show a significant positive relationship between membership in an online cohort major and baccalaureate degree completion. The results suggest that higher education leaders seeking to improve baccalaureate degree completion rates may benefit from offering online courses in a cohort format.
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Attaining a college degree contributes to increased employment opportunities and greater compensation (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016), yet a third of U.S. students who enroll in an undergraduate certificate program, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree do not finish within six years (Johnson, 2012). This failure of students to complete their degrees has a negative impact on the students who drop out, the postsecondary institutions that recruit and teach those students, and the national workforce. Students who spend resources on a degree they fail to complete can face financial burdens and diminished future earning potential (Schneider & Yin, 2011). Postsecondary institutions similarly experience a loss of resources when funds are used to recruit and teach students who drop out (Johnson, 2012). Finally, given that an estimated 35% of U.S. job openings through 2020 will require at least a bachelor’s degree, the nation faces an estimated shortage of five million baccalaureate degree-qualified workers (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2013).

The problem extends beyond the United States—failure of students to complete their degrees is a worldwide concern. According to a 2016 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 41% of students across OECD member countries completed their bachelor’s degrees in the typical time allotted for the program, and 69% completed within three more years (OECD, 2016). Across OECD countries, the average unemployment for college graduates was 4.9% compared to 12.4% for those with less than upper secondary education (OECD, 2016). In addition, compensation for workers with bachelor’s degrees was an average of 48% greater than for employees with only upper secondary education (OECD, 2016).

Efforts to retain students may have greater impact from examining factors that influence them to stay in college. Kuh (2001, 2009) found that students stay in college thanks to their engagement in activities such as working with a faculty member on a project or participating in an internship. These and other activities are the basis of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a widely-used survey tool that measures baccalaureate student engagement in academic activities empirical research has deemed purposeful (Kuh, 2001). Included in the activities assessed by the NSSE are high-impact practices of a transformational nature. These activities are characterized by factors like substantial time and effort, meaningful faculty-student interactions, peer-to-peer collaboration, learning that extends beyond the classroom, and substantive feedback (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2015). The NSSE examines participation in numerous high-impact practices, such as internships, study abroad programs, and interactions with classmates and faculty (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2015). A particularly successful practice is engaging students through learning communities (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2015).

An example of a learning community is the cohort education model, a structure in which students complete a set of courses together over a period of time (Barnett & Caffarella, 1992). Studies have shown the cohort education model can positively influence student retention (Barnett, Basom, Yerkes, & Norris, 2000; Bentley, Zhao, Reames, & Reed, 2004; Bista & Cox, 2014; Burnett, 1999; Pemberton & Akkary, 2010). Two aspects are frequently linked to the cohort education model’s positive influence on retention. First, studies have shown taking a set of courses together as a group positively influences student engagement (Kuh, 2003; K. A. Martin, Goldwasser, & Galentino, 2016; Zhao & Kuh, 2004). Second, researchers have reported a positive correlation between student engagement and retention (Astin, 1984; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Pace, 1984; Pascarella, 1985; Tinto & Cullen, 1973). Inherent in the connection between the cohort model and retention is social connectedness, a factor shown to predict retention (Roberts & Styron, 2010; Tinto, 1997; Zhao & Kuh, 2004).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Age: Age is the age of the student when he or she enrolled at the University, as calculated from the birthdate indicated in their student record.

Gender: As indicated in student record data, gender includes the categories male, female, and other/unknown.

Degree Completion: Degree completion reflects the dependent variable of degree completion. Student record data was used to determine if a student completed their baccalaureate degree at the research site within six years of their first enrollment. Data was not available for students who transferred out and completed their degree at another institution within six years.

Course Format: Course format reflects the independent variables cohort and non-cohort. The course format is cohort if the major includes all cohort courses, or non-cohort if the major includes all non-cohort courses.

Pell-Eligible: Students were categorized as Pell-eligible if they were eligible for Pell grants during any point in their baccalaureate enrollment at the research site, as indicated by student record data. An estimated 80% of baccalaureate students at the research site apply for federal financial aid.

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