why students fail in college

Online college has plenty of advantages. The flexibility of taking a course on your own schedule is perfect for students who have work or family obligations. Not having to commute to campus saves students both time and money. It seems like online college has everything a student could want, so why do some sources, like NEA Today, suggest that students are more likely to fail online college courses than traditional courses?  Many failures stem from misperceptions about what to expect and a lack of knowledge about how and where students can get help.

A study quoted in the US News and World Report says that 110 million people took online courses in 2019. Of those people, more than 52 percent never even looked at the course materials, and over a five-year period the average dropout rate was 40-60 percent for those in a degree program and 90 percent for those taking a MOOC course ( a course offered online, without tuition). That is an amazing statistic, considering the financial and time investment required for an online degree program. Additionally, while online classes promise rigorous curriculum that matches the offerings in traditional classroom settings, some studies show that retention may be lower than for face-to-face courses. It seems that many of the advantages of online study can also be reasons students fail online courses or programs.

Misconceptions about Online College

Some students fail online college courses because they don’t know what to expect. They may think that online classes are easier than classes taken in the classroom, when in reality these courses require more discipline and, often, more work. Just because students don’t have to follow a set schedule of lectures in a traditional classroom doesn’t mean their online course will require any less time than an on-campus course would. Students who expect to breeze through their online class or think doing the work on their own schedule means devoting little time to their studies may find themselves struggling. Students who neglect to obtain the necessary course materials, like required textbooks, also put themselves at risk for failing the class.

A Closer Look

Taking a closer look at the “ failure-factors” mentioned, plus a few others, may help students understand the complexities of successful study.

Failing to Invest the Time

In general, students should expect to spend at least 15 hours a week for each three-credit course they take. Traditional brick-and-mortar college courses require in-class time plus time spent out of class on research, writing papers, answering questions posed in the textbook and other task. Online learning is no different. In a semester, that amounts to 135 hours of out-of-class study. Some schools operate on the quarter system with three terms a year. Courses are usually 4.5 credit hours, but the ratio of class time between quarter and semester-based programs is about 1.5:1, so a 4.5 credit course equates to three hours. That means the time on online study required is still about 15 hours a week per course.

The US News and World Report says students should spend ten full hours a week on each semester course, but the amount students should actually spend depends upon how familiar they are with the course subject, what their grade expectations are (whether they are satisfied with a “C”), and the pace at which they are able to study. The last thing relates to the student’s ability to comprehend material easily.

Having a realistic understanding of the time involved in taking an online course can help students make appropriate lifestyle changes to accommodate study and, as a result, to become less frustrated and critical of themselves.

Not Managing Time Efficiently

Online students set their own schedules. According to some sources, at least 40 percent of undergraduate students and 76 percent of graduate students are working at least 30 hours a week. Many are single mothers who also must factor in childcare and time for general house routines. When required study time is factored in, the task becomes daunting and the ability for self-discipline is vital. Additionally, people need “down-time” including recreation and rest. The lack of scheduling skills may be another reason students fail online courses.

Skipping Required Materials

One of the perks of some online courses is that all class material is available online. Still, students must locate the materials and download or at least study them. Other courses require students to buy the same textbooks used in traditional face-to-face courses. Most college courses do not utilize class time to cover material available in the textbooks. Instead, professors and instructors lecture about additional material, answer questions and introduce discussions. Online and traditional courses should offer the same quality and depth of content. For online courses, that additional material is available in virtual lectures or in reading assignments, and covered in online forums, but the textbook foundational material is still required.

Losing Motivation

Why Do Students Fail Online College Courses?

The excitement of becoming a college student, even an online college student, can quickly dull under the realities of the routine, the workload and time required to succeed. Many students with unrealistic goals become disillusioned and simply stop putting in the effort. Eventually, they fall behind and become overwhelmed.

Poor Equipment

Three things are necessary for online study besides the course itself. Students must have a good computer and a dependable, fast Internet service and the skill to use them. It is important to be able to access lectures, participate on online forum discussions, and meet deadlines for turning in tests and assignments. Online instructors do not make allowances for interruption in service or a malfunctioning computer.

Lack of Support Resources

Students who study in the evening, or on weekends and holidays need access to tech support. Technical problems must be handled quickly. If the school does not have tech service available at all hours, students may miss assignments or lectures. Additionally, colleges understand the need for counseling services to address career, motivation, learning challenges and other issues. Online students need counselors who are available outside of traditional office hours.
Students who study in the evening, or on weekends and holidays need access to tech support. Technical problems must be handled quickly. If the school does not have tech service available at all hours, students may miss assignments or lectures. Additionally, colleges understand the need for counseling services to address career, motivation, learning challenges and other issues. Online students need counselors who are available outside of traditional office hours.


It seems when things seem to be going well, life throws a ”monkey wrench” into the works. There are family emergencies, issues at work, you become ill or become the caretaker of someone else who is ill. Emergencies cannot be predicted, nor can they often be easily handled.

Combating Isolation in an Online Classroom

For other students, there’s a learning curve when it comes to learning in a virtual rather than physical classroom. Students who are used to being face-to-face with their instructors and classmates and who thrive on that close interpersonal interaction may have a hard time adjusting to the comparably impersonal nature of online learning. When students feel isolated and estranged from their instructor and fellow learners rather than engaged in the lesson – which is one of the biggest challenges with online education, according to The New York Times – they may be more likely to fall behind.

The isolation of online learning can worsen depression or loneliness for people who already struggle with these issues. The website Medium.com says that students without a “sense of social presence” and a connection with the instructor are more likely to fail. Additionally, feelings of being overwhelmed by concepts and principles can increase anxiety levels. One way to deal with this is to take advantage of (or form) study groups whether online or in person. Online forums can be places to connect with others as well. Participation in these groups is often mandated in the course, but it also relieves feelings of isolation and could provide invaluable networking experiences.

Succeeding in an Online Education

Students can take steps to help themselves succeed and minimize their risk of failure in online college courses. Before they enroll in an online course, they can assess their own learning style and potential. If they have a history of struggling in traditional courses, they should consider whether online college is right for them and determine what kinds of help and tutoring services are available for their online degree programs, should they need to use them. They can make sure they enter their online college program with realistic expectations regarding the workload and the time commitment they will have to invest. Students can also make use of chat options to benefit from virtual class discussions and communicate to their instructor if they feel they are getting lost.

Plotting a course for Success

Why Do Students Fail Online College Courses?

One of the best ways to avoid failure as an online student is to plan for success. Here are a few ways to do that.

Creative Scheduling

This article alluded to efficient use of time and creative scheduling. One of the first steps in budgeting is to get an overview of expenses and incomes. The first step in scheduling is listing all responsibilities and priorities. Some of these can be delegated to other household members or even eliminated. Sleep is an often-ignored priority that affects learning.

Schedules should also be flexible and allow for unexpected occurrences. They should include room for variety. While students shouldn’t study in the same room where people are watching television or listening to music, but it is certainly fine to go to the library or into another quiet room some days. Students can pay attention to when they feel the most alert as well and schedule some study at those times.

While students need to allocate several hours of adjunct study for each course, it shouldn’t come all at once. A better idea is to study for no more than two hours at a time.

The Right Stuff (for the Class)

Why Do Students Fail Online College Courses?

It is important to pay attention to which materials and resources are needed for each class and to make sure you have them. Textbooks can be expensive, but a degree is an investment, and students have to do everything in their power to safeguard that investment. Books can be purchased second-hand or even borrowed. The important thing is not to attempt to take a class without the materials required to be successful at it.

Stay Motivated

Accomplish career goals in smaller steps. Students who keep their goals fresh in their minds stay more motivated. Vary study, not trying to cram the entire week’s study of a course into one session. Divide papers you must write into “pages-per-day” to make them less formidable. The success rate for online classes is only 50 percent as opposed to 75 percent for face-to-face courses. Students who are struggling in a course are more likely to become discouraged and drop out. It is important to seek out help before you get “lost” in the course and lose motivation to continue.

Find and Use Resources

Take advantage of your college’s career development counselor, your course advisor or any other support people who offer their services through the school. Make certain you know how to reach the people who do tech support as well. If you are experiencing depression or anxiety, seek the help of a counselor. If the unexpected happens in your life and things become strained financially, talk to the bursar’s office. Be proactive in addressing problems that arise to keep yourself on track and motivated to accomplish your goals.

An article on the website Learn Dash which is directed at online instructors addresses the problems associated with online learning. Instructors, it says, should communicate through course descriptions an accurate account of the time the coursework will probably take and the academic fundamentals required to understand it. He or she should also post advisories on lessons that are especially taxing and may require extra time. Still, instructors can only go so far in helping students be successful at online learning, and the fact that the website addressed these issues for teachers shows that they understand online learning can be challenging.

What it comes down to is making the commitment to succeed. Students taking courses or earning degrees through distance learning are not virtual students. They are real students taking virtual classes. Earning a degree online while maintaining your “life” is a task that involves a lot of planning and dedication. Not every student can do it successfully. It takes the ability to stay on task, to work by yourself and set a pace that you can achieve.


Online college courses aren’t easy. They can even be more difficult than traditional college courses. However, with the right planning, realistic expectations, a lot of discipline and a willingness to seek help if necessary, students can succeed and thrive in online college courses.

Related Resources: