Dropout rates have become an important educational marker of institutional success. It doesn’t matter if the metric is used to define high schools, college, or even training. A drop out is a sunk cost and administrators are concerned about its implications for the future of certain programs. However, dropout rates, like any other metric, is only part of the issue. It is a number that is redefined depending on which definition the evaluator wishes to use and the general educational environment.
An article in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning discussed the nature of common definitions of dropout and how these measurements are somewhat subjective (Grau-Valldosera & Minguillon, 2014). Current definitions may be inaccurate and not applicable to online education as much as it is to traditional schools.
Students in the online system may leave and return a year or more later; they are calculated as dropouts. Under more traditional systems the instance a student leaves school they are considered a dropout. Under a traditional semester and dormitory school this is a sufficient method of calculating rates because of the re-access barriers and formal approval processes that define the educational process makes it difficult for most of these students to return.
Within an online system students may not view a drop out the same way. A person who doesn’t take an accelerated class this semester may not consider themselves drop outs. They could be taking a break, moving apartments, or changing jobs. After getting over their hectic life change they may just sign back up for another course. Tracking over a longer period would create a more accurate assessment.
Such students aren’t always lost. They are sort of in the transitioning process of working and continuing their careers. Sometimes they have the extra capital and time to go school while at other times they be too busy with work or family. The tragedy of a drop out doesn’t occur unless the person doesn’t come back or takes an excessive amount of time to fulfill their educational goals.
That is part of the point of online higher education. It was meant to help working adults that want to go back to school and further their careers. Some of these students achieve academic excellence that other systems don't offer. For example, Master and Doctoral students offer a chance to gain practical knowledge in the working world while becoming theoretical contributors. The process may take longer but the potential contribution to society could be more.
Even if such doctor’s don’t immediately produce high levels of laboratory experimentation they do contribute to literature, science and industry knowledge. Because the online system is becoming fully established it will eventually raise doctors who will conduct high levels of applied research. Theoretical knowledge tied with practical working knowledge is a dynamite combination.
Higher education is about raising the specter of minds available to society. It improves upon an individual’s lifestyle and earning prospects. Whether they stay or leave college their knowledge goes with them. Retention could be better defined by the empirical model as outlined in Grau-Valldosera & Minguillion’s journal article that affords more flexibility in working-learners than traditional models. The online student is a highly motivated self-learner that may pop in and out of the educational system. Knowing where and when to reclassify a non-active student a drop out is open to definitional debate.
Grau-Valldosera, J. & Miguillon, J. (2014). Rethinking dropout in online higher education: the case of the Universitat Oberta De Catalunya, 15 (1).