Effectiveness of Online Education? Even the GAO Can’t Tell

While many for-profit schools push the benefits of distance education as the future of college, arguing that it’s cheaper and more convenient for working Americans, we actually still don’t know if it’s very effective.

That’s according to the Government Accountability Office, which on Thursday issued a report finding that there is insufficient information about such education programs.

Federal law and regulations do not require accrediting agencies to have separate standards for reviewing distance education. As such, accreditors GAO spoke with have not adopted separate review standards, although they differed in the practices they used to examine schools offering distance education. School officials GAO interviewed reported using a range of design principles and student performance assessments to hold distance education to the same standards as face-to-face education.

But GAO keeps trying.

In 2009, Education began selecting 27 schools for distance education monitoring based on an analysis of risk factors, but it did not have data to identify schools with high enrollments in distance education, which may have impeded its ability to accurately identify high-risk schools. Between 2011 and 2013, Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) will start collecting survey data on the extent to which schools offer distance education, as well as enrollment levels. However, the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), responsible for monitoring Title IV compliance, was not involved in the process of deciding what distance education information would be collected; therefore, it did not provide input on what types of data could be helpful in oversight. Further, FSA officials said they do not yet have a plan on how they will use the new data in monitoring.

Of course, the fact that the federal government still hasn’t somehow figured out a way to collect and evaluate the pertinent information about distance learning (which GAO says is mostly online) is perhaps indicative of the seriousness of the problem, but we shall see.

Read the full report here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer