The Real Attrition Rate of Elite Offline Education Courses

by Reihan Salam

Some months ago, I wrote a column arguing that online education can be good or cheap, but not both. This was a bit of an overstatement. Good online education can be cheaper than good offline education, but my basic premise was that for students who require a lot of help and hassle, education will always be a labor-intensive, and thus at least somewhat expensive, endeavor. The reason is that when you don’t have people helping and hassling undermotivated students, undermotivated students will tend to not finish what they start. This accounts for why MOOCs tend to have high attrition rates.

Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation pushes against this line of thinking very intelligently. His basic argument is that when we think about MOOC attrition rates, much depends on how we define the denominator — the universe of people who give the MOOC in question a try. And this denominator can be very large, e.g., people who just decided to register online for a class, or who watch a lecture or two before abandoning ship. But if we count people who are so casually engaged in the denominator, surely we should use a similar metric for offline education, e.g., we should include people who applied to a given university to determine the attrition rate of students in a particular offline course:

The point being, what we see in both cases is a filtering process. Penn evaluates applicants and throws out everyone it doesn’t think can succeed in Penn courses. They don’t get counted as failures because they’re not allowed in the denominator in the first place. Coursera lets everyone who wants to take the course. Instead of deciding ahead of time who’s likely to fail, it lets people try for themselves.

The comparison isn’t exact. Like all elite schools, Penn enforces an artificial scarcity on admissions slots. Some–most, perhaps–of the students it fails to admit might be good enough to complete Penn-level work. On the other hand, “submitted an application” is a much higher standard than “signed up for a course on Coursera.” Completing a college application requires a substantial amount of work filling out forms and assembling documents, plus the expenditure of cold hard cash in the form of $75 application fee. Signing up for Coursera takes 30 seconds and is free. An apples-to-apples comparison would probably include everyone who requested a Penn application, or logged onto registrar’s website, but didn’t complete an application. That number would be substantially larger than 31,218, and drive the graduation ratio down further still. 

Very well said. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.