Distance education has become an increasingly common mode of instruction in U.S. higher education, and today more than a quarter of students are enrolled in distance courses or programs that are fully online. Dr. Kaley Boggs’s dissertation asks two fundamental questions related to the growing presence of distance-based instruction in U.S. higher education. First, does increased college access in the form of distance enrollments contribute to horizontal postsecondary stratification? Second, is the adoption of distance education indicative of academic capitalism?
Dr. Boggs makes use of two broad theoretical perspectives to frame her analysis and develop a set of hypotheses concerning the types of colleges and universities that enroll greater percentages of undergraduates in at least one distance course or completely online degree programs. Drawing on the “effectively maintained inequality” (EMI) perspective, she hypothesizes that enrollment in distance courses and programs will be higher at less selective colleges and universities and will vary by institutional sector. Regarding sector, she hypothesizes that distance enrollments are highest at for-profit institutions, and higher at public institutions than at private. Drawing on the “academic capitalism” perspective, Dr. Boggs hypothesizes that institutions with lower levels of financial resources will rely more heavily on distance education as a revenue source and a means of reducing costs.
Dr. Boggs tests these hypotheses using the NCES Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Set for 2015-16. The sample of consists of 2,180 four-year postsecondary institutions. Hypotheses are tested using one-way and two-way ANOVA models and bivariate correlation analyses.
Dr. Boggs finds that enrollment in distance education varies significantly by level of selectivity, sector, and financial resources. As hypothesized, less selective institutions have significantly higher percentages of distance enrollment, but interesting subtleties emerge between sectors. Within public institutions distance course and program enrollment are fairly steady across selectivity levels, while enrollment differs substantially among private colleges and universities. Additional analyses of student composition by sector and selectivity confirm that social inequalities by race and class are not likely diminished by distance education. Institutions with fewer resources and expenditures have higher levels of distance education, as expected. Specifically, private institutions with fewer financial resources have greater distance course and program enrollment, and for-profits with fewer resources have greater distance program enrollment. However, overall revenue and expenses are not related to distance enrollment among public universities. Exploratory analysis of detailed revenue and expenditures paint a more nuanced picture of the financial resources that vary with greater reliance on distance courses and programs.
Dr. Boggs concludes that the growth of distance enrollments does not reduce social stratification in higher education because distance enrollment growth is occurring disproportionately at less selective private and for-profit colleges and universities—institutions that are costlier to attend, have lower economic payoffs, and disproportionately enroll students of color and lower income college students. The growth of distance enrollment is also consistent with depiction of higher education as an academic capitalist regime, in that distance enrollment appears to function as a revenue source for colleges and universities, particularly for those outside the public sector.
Dr. Kaley Boggs earned her PhD. in Sociology in 2019. This post is based on her dissertation abstract which available via DigiNole.
The feature image is from College Raptor.