Typing on a laptop.

Online university courses might be creating new challenges for the very students they are meant to help, a new study finds.

Many non-traditional students turn to, and are recruited for, online degree programs on the promise of greater flexibility and lower fees. But research released by the Brookings Institution last week suggests online courses provide the worst academic outcomes for the students who most need extra support. Looking at the for-profit DeVry University’s enrollment and performance data, Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb of Stanford University report that students who took an online class received grades 0.44 points worse on a 4.0 grade point average scale compared to traditional students who took the same class in person. That means the online course takers would receive a C on average, whereas the traditional student would receive a B-minus on average.

This disparity was sharpest for the lowest-performing students, whose online course grades were 0.5 points worse on average. Online classes also increased students’ risk of dropping out of school by about 9 percent, the authors reported. That means students already struggling with their grades or at risk of dropping out are likely to face steeper risks in an online setting.

“While online courses may have the potential to differentiate coursework to meet the needs of students with weaker incoming skills, current online courses, in fact, do an even worse job of meeting the needs of these students than do traditional in-person courses,” the authors write.

The authors note that DeVry’s online courses are modeled almost exactly after the traditional university classes. That means this study’s results are not only specific to DeVry, but to online courses that choose to mimic customary approaches to education, rather than take a different approach better tailored to the medium.