Assessing Enrollment and Attrition Rates for the Online MBA


Distance learning is not a new subject, but recently it has come in vogue again. With the advent of new educational and training technologies augmented by the Internet, distance learning is a viable option in meeting the needs of today's learning-hungry, but time-pressed students. The growing amount of literature on Internet instruction has examined several questions, including course design (Porter 1997, Cooper 2000), student and faculty assessment (Ryan 2000, White 2000), and quality control (Lezberg 1998, Terry 2000). However, few articles have addressed the important issues of enrollment and attrition. The purpose of this paper is to examine enrollment and attrition rates associated with online courses, based on the experience of a regional MBA program that has been offering instruction over the Internet for three years.


In many ways the college in this study, West Texas A&M University (WT), is a typical example of a mid-sized college. It is the primary source of university education, research, and service for its region. Annual student enrollment is approximately 6,500. The Texas panhandle region has a relatively low population density, making the campus an ideal school for Internet instruction. For this reason, the University has been encouraged to act as a pioneer school in online education for the Texas A&M University System. The College of Business is an accredited member of the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP). In 1997, the College of Business initiated an Internet-based option in portions of their MBA program. The 200 students in the program can complete all essential courses on campus and/or in the Internet mode. Students enrolled in an online course are assessed a nominal distance education fee of $75 to recoup some of the costs of technical support, but all other tuition fees are the same across the two instructional modes. To date, 15 different graduate business courses have been offered on the Internet. During the spring of 2000, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) positively reviewed the online business program at WT.

This study focuses on enrollment and attrition rates for the 15 graduate business courses offered on campus and over the Internet during the past three years. The business disciplines covered include accounting, economics, finance, business statistics, computer information systems, management and marketing. All 15 courses were offered at least once in both the campus- and Internet-based formats during the study period, and the same professor taught each course, regardless of instruction mode. Every effort is made to provide consistent methods, procedures, and materials in both the traditional and Internet-based instruction formats. Learning materials, including textbook information, detailed lecture notes, and supporting articles, are distributed in class or posted on the course Web site, depending on instruction mode. For the purpose of this study, enrollment and attrition rates are calculated on the basis of the first class day instead of the traditional twelfth class day, because the primary objective is to assess enrollment and retention for online courses. Hence, the enrollment and attrition rates presented in the next section are higher than the official twelfth class day numbers, but capture all students interested in online courses, even those deciding to drop the course within the first two weeks of instruction.


Enrollment and Attrition Rates for Online Courses

Bringing education to students via the Internet has the potential to benefit students and significantly increase the enrollment of an institution. Student benefits associated with Internet instruction include increased access to higher education, flexible location, individualized attention from the instructor, less travel, and increased time to respond to questions posed by the instructor (Matthews 1999). The increase in educational access and convenience to the student should benefit the enrollment of an institution by tapping the time- and geographically-constrained learner. The results presented in Table 1 indicate that online courses are doing just that. Specifically, Internet courses averaged higher enrollments than the campus equivalents in 12 of the 15 business courses. The online delivery had an overall average of 34 students per course, compared to only 25 students in the traditional campus mode.

Although enrollment is relatively high, it is also important to note that the attrition rate was higher in 13 of the 15 online courses. Potential explanations for the higher attrition rates include students not being able to adjust to the self-paced approach in the virtual format, the rigor of study being more difficult than students anticipated, and a lack of student and faculty experience with the instruction mode. A simple sign test reveals that enrollment and attrition rates are both statistically greater in the online format (Conover 1980).

The results shown in Table 1 indicate that some business disciplines are more conducive to attracting and retaining students than others are. Discipline-specific implications include the following:

  • Accounting
  • The basic accounting course (Financial Accounting) and the advanced accounting course (Accounting for Decision Making) both have higher online enrollment and attrition rates. Of primary interest is the observation that attrition rates in the two instruction modes are comparable, contradicting the notion that the detail-specific nature of accounting makes courses unconvertible to the online format.

  • Economics
  • The online versions of the basic economic course (Contemporary Economic Theory) and the advanced economic course (Advanced Macr'economic Theory) both have higher enrollment and attrition rates than their classroom counterparts. The two field courses in economics (International Economics and Money and Capital Markets) both have online enrollments over three times greater than the campus equivalent, indicating an extreme interest in global economic courses delivered via the Internet.

  • Finance
  • The corporate finance course in the study had a substantially higher online enrollment and attrition rate than its classroom counterpart. The most glaring observation is the lack of retention in the online format. The attrition rate in the online finance course is an alarming 36 percent, indicating that one in three students who start the course do not complete it.

  • Business Statistics
  • Enrollment in the basic statistics course (Statistical Methods in Business) is slightly higher in the online mode, but enrollment in the advanced course (Quantitative Analysis in Business) is substantially higher in the campus mode. Attrition rates for the online statistics course are extremely high. The 43 percent attrition rate of the basic online statistics course is higher than that of any other course in the study and may have a lot to do with campus enrollment in the advanced statistics course being higher than the online counterpart.

  • Computer Information Systems
  • Enrollment and attrition rates for the Computer Information Technology business course are not significantly different across instruction modes. The online attrition rate of five percent is well below the overall average of 21 percent.

  • Marketing
  • The basic marketing course (Managerial Marketing) and the advanced marketing course (Seminar in Marketing) both have higher enrollment and attrition rates online than in the classroom. The advanced marketing course was offered four times during the study period and averaged 50 students per course, making it the most popular online course.

  • Management
  • The three management courses have atypical results. The online course in Organizational Behavior has a relatively high attrition rate with lower than average enrollment. Much like the global economic courses, enrollment in the field course in International Management is substantially higher in the online format. Enrollment and attrition rates for the MBA capstone course in Strategic Management are not significantly different across instruction modes.


    If a university offers courses over the Internet, will anyone enroll in them? If students enroll in a Web-based course, will they complete it or be attrition casualties? The results of this study imply that online courses enroll more students, but suffer from higher attrition rates than traditional campus courses. It appears that the enrollment-augmenting advantages of Internet-based instruction, like making it easier to manage work and school and allowing more time with family and friends, are attractive to a significant number of graduate business students. The sustained higher enrollment across several business courses is a positive sign for the future of Internet-based instruction. On the other hand, attrition appears to be a problem with some of the online courses. Courses in the disciplines of accounting, economics, computer information systems, marketing, and management appear to be very conducive to the Internet format, as attrition rates are comparable to the campus equivalents. Courses in business statistics and finance, with attrition rates in excess of 30 percent, do not appear to be very well suited to the Internet instruction format. An obvious conclusion is that courses requiring extensive mathematics are difficult to convert to an Internet instruction format. It is important to note that results of this study are preliminary and represent a first step in an attempt to assess the effectiveness of Internet-based instruction. Much more research is needed before any definitive conclusions can be reached.

    Neil Terry is the Director of Graduate Programs in the College of Business at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. He earned his bachelor's degree at California State University, Sacramento and Ph.D. at Texas Tech University.

    E-mail: [email protected]


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    This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.