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Who attends and completes virtual universities: the case of the open University of Catalonia (UOC)


A highly touted feature of the so-called global “revolution” in higher education is the trend to use information technology to reach a broader clientele. Although there is evidence that students may be learning the material in on-line courses as well as in traditional face-to-face universities, how well students learn content is not the only reason they persist to a degree, and student persistence is an important goal of higher education institutions. In this paper, we make the case that the life conditions for students attending virtual universities are different from those of “traditional” students in face-to-face universities, and that this difference puts a particular (largely non-pecuniary) premium on time to degree. With our data from a Catalan virtual university, the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), we are able to test this hypothesis directly by using the heterogeneous degree structure of the Catalonian/Spanish higher education system to estimate whether the number of courses required to get various degrees (the length of the degree program) is significantly related to student persistence. The study analyzes several cohorts of students (those who entered in 2000–2003) studying in the UOC and estimates the factors that influence their degree completion. We find that the completion rate is generally low, but that students taking shorter degree courses at the UOC are much more likely to complete their degrees. This suggests that, given their clientele, on-line universities operate under very different constraints from their face-to-face counterparts. Our results are important for higher educational researchers, who have mainly focused on younger populations attending face-face universities. They also can serve university administrators who launch distance education degree programs and make high stakes decisions about them with little of no information on the likely behavior of their older students, and can serve employers who are deciding whether to subsidize their employees to take advanced degrees through on-line programs of study.

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  1. Thanks to Alan Woodley of the Open University for his assistance in providing references for research on the OU.

  2. Another example is the United States’ University of Phoenix—a private for profit institution with about one-half million undergraduate and graduate students and more than 200 campuses worldwide. Phoenix is increasingly Internet-based, with well over half of its students taking courses almost exclusively on-line. Again, nothing is known about completion rates at Phoenix, except for a federal audit that reported 16% completion rates for first time college students—a report criticized by officials at Phoenix. Such research would be especially relevant given Phoenix’s relatively high tuition cost.

  3. Traditionally, Spanish universities have awarded a 3 year diplomatura or ingeniería técnica degrees and 4, 5 or 6 year licenciatura or ingeniería degrees. These degrees were separate. The 3 year degrees were intended for technical professions such as nursing, social work, teaching, and engineering technicians. The longer degrees trained people for higher-level professions or academic disciplines. The longer degrees also served for direct entry to the doctorate (postgrado). There was no MA degree. Lately, the diplomatura, which was initially a terminal degree, has also been called a primer ciclo degree and can serve as a prerequisite for further study to obtain a 2 year segundo ciclo degree (the last 2 years of a licenciatura in a related or different field). Although the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) is gradually changing the Spanish degree structure, the existence of first cycle, second cycle, and 4 year degrees has always been the degree structure for students at the UOC, and the one that applied to the students in the 2000–2003 cohorts we investigated in this study.

  4. The Catalan government heavily subsidizes students from Catalonia, but not from outside the province. The UOC offers courses in Spanish as well as Catalan, but the Spanish language courses are offered only in the Spanish “campus.” Students from Spain also take their examinations at various locations in Spain.

  5. Students in Catalonia/Spain do take entrance examinations to enter university (the PAU). Although most students admitted to the UOC have taken the PAU and are asked to self-report their scores when they matriculate in the PAAU (Pruebas del Acceso a la Universidad), they are not required to do so. About one-sixth of the population of students we studied supplied their score, too few to do a meaningful analysis.

  6. However, other theories of labor markets (for example Thurow’s (1972), queuing theory) suggest that the sector in which the student works has a major impact on income independent of ability. If that is the case, including the student’s pre-UOC income would not “correct” the program of study coefficients for ability bias.

  7. Under the EHEA, new degrees have started for the master's level in 2006, and are scheduled to start at the undergraduate level in 2008. The new degrees will be: graduado for the bachelor's degree, after 4 years of study, except for pharmacy or dentistry, requiring 5 years, and medicine, requiring 6 years; the master’s degree, for 1 or 2 year programs after the graduado degree; and the doctorate degree. The UOC already has a number of master’s programs operating under the Bologna changes.

  8. The programs of study are grouped into six administrative areas: Primer ciclo business sciences and tourism courses (CC Empresariales y CC Turismo), enrolling 24.5% of students; Segundo ciclo degree programs in documentation (library science), psycho-pedagogy, and audiovisual communication, enrolling 9.5% of students; Segundo ciclo degree programs in human resource management (CC Trabajo) and policy (CC Políticas), enrolling 8.9% of students. Primer ciclo information technology degree programs (Management IT and Systems IT), enrolling 20.1% of students; Segundo ciclo degree programs in business management (ADE), information engineering (EI), market research and techniques (ITM), and East Asian studies enrolling 12.0% of students; Four-year degree programs in law, humanities, Catalan Language and Literature, and psychology, enrolling 24.9% of students.

  9. The coefficients in this table for each program of study represent approximately the higher (positive) or lower (negative) probability that a student in that program completes the degree compared to students in business sciences.

  10. We included age squared in the regression but it was not significant and not reported in the table.

  11. This is probably the result of including a number of variables that are not in the earlier estimates, which appear to widen the estimated differences in completion rates associated with shorter and longer programs. We included but do not display the stated length of program as an additional variable (2 and 4 years, with 3 year length of program as the left out reference dummy). The coefficients were not statistically different from zero due to co-linearity with the program of study dummies.


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Correspondence to Martin Carnoy.

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Carnoy, M., Rabling, B.J., Castano-Munoz, J. et al. Who attends and completes virtual universities: the case of the open University of Catalonia (UOC). High Educ 63, 53–82 (2012).

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  • On-line universities
  • Student persistence to degree
  • Adult learners
  • Distance learning
  • Nontraditional higher education students
  • Higher education policy