Mead C, Supriya K, Zheng Y, Anbar AD, Collins JP, LePore P, Brownell SE. Online biology degree program broadens access for women, first-generation to college, and low-income students, but grade disparities remain. PLoS One. 2020 Dec 11;15(12):e0243916

PMID: 33306720


Online education has grown rapidly in recent years with many universities now offering fully online degree programs even in STEM disciplines. These programs have the potential to broaden access to STEM degrees for people with social identities currently underrepresented in STEM. Here, we ask to what extent is that potential realized in terms of student enrollment and grades for a fully online degree program. Our analysis of data from more than 10,000 course-enrollments compares student demographics and course grades in a fully online biology degree program to demographics and grades in an equivalent in-person biology degree program at the same university. We find that women, first-generation to college students and students eligible for federal Pell grants constitute a larger proportion of students in the online program compared to the in-person mode. However, the online mode of instruction is associated with lower course grades relative to the in-person mode. Moreover, African American/Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, and Pacific Islander students as well as federal Pell grant eligible students earned lower grades than white students and non-Pell grant eligible students, respectively, but the grade disparities were similar among both in-person and online student groups. Finally, we find that grade disparities between men and women are larger online compared to in-person, but that for first-generation to college women, the online mode of instruction is associated with little to no grade gap compared to continuing generation women. Our findings indicate that although this online degree program broadens access for some student populations, inequities in the experience remain and need to be addressed in order for online education to achieve its inclusive mission.