Policymakers in general, and the Obama administration in particular, have two fundamental goals for higher education reform: cut costs and increase graduation rates.

It turns out cutting costs will probably also reduce graduation rates, however. That’s because many colleges are trying to operate more efficiently by offering online courses.

According to an article by Rob Jenkins in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Two… studies by researchers at Columbia’s Community College Research Center… shed light on the role that online courses play in college completion—and the news isn’t exactly good.

The more recent of the two… “followed the enrollment history of 51,000 community-college students in Washington state between 2004 and 2009 [and] found an eight percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses.” That comes on the heels of a 2010 study that reached similar conclusions about community-college students in Virginia: “Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.”

Community-college students who take online courses are actually less likely to graduate or transfer. Is it possible that we’re taking the wrong approach?

Yes, it probably is.

Trying to find ways to cut costs, of course, is very difficult for colleges to do. And online classes certainly have the potential to be cheaper to administer. But if computer college also results in higher dropout rates, we’re likely to figure that out pretty soon.

Many critics argue that the graduation rate tracking proposed by the Obama administration is too crude a tool to measure college success. Perhaps. But merely tracking graduation rates more closely might give Americans a better idea about how online education works. And that seems like an important, if basic, measure of success.

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