What Role Does The Online University Play In The Equity Of The University System?

By Albert Sánchez-Gelabert and Marina Elias

Equality of educational opportunities is essential for youth who are building their future and for a society that aims to evolve without leaving anyone behind. Development has to be sustainable, also at the educational level, so equity in the university system is fundamental to guarantee opportunities for all types of students. Higher education institutions play a key role in shaping a picture with different options within the same system: public universities, private, on-site, online, double degree programs, in different languages, etc.

In the current highly complex social context, students’ lives reflect diverse situations that often make it difficult for them to go to university. The profile of the traditional student, young, without external responsibilities and from families with higher education, is decreasing and non-traditional students, older, with work and family responsibilities, from low social backgrounds and with diverse priorities that are external to the world of study and university life, are increasing in number at the university. 

In November 2020 the Principles and Guidelines for Enhancing the Social Dimension of Higher Education in the EHEA launched in 2020 set the agenda for action to put equity and inclusion in higher education at the heart of the European Union’s policy development. In this sense, universities have to make efforts to accommodate the diversification of university student profiles. They also had to assist minority groups in these new situations that lead to diverse student profiles and help them to be able to learn and obtain a university degree in the same degree as traditional students.

This diversity has led to a broader understanding of the university experience and the ways of moving through this higher education institution, which has crystallised in an increase in the complexity of students’ academic trajectories (Andrews, Li, & Lovenheim, 2014; Clasemann & Boon, 2019; Haas, 2022; Haas & Hadjar, 2020). 

Another element coming into the picture today is the increasing importance and centrality of online universities that offers new possibilities for students in their higher education trajectories. The flexibility provided by the online university model in terms of time and space may attract a certain profile of students with multiple responsibilities or from lower social backgrounds who seek to reduce the costs associated with attending in-person universities, such as indirect economic and time costs. In this context increases the need to investigate complex trajectories and a growing number of studies are trying to answer what the consequences of these new situations are in terms of equity.

The main question that arises in this context is whether for non-traditional student profiles with disadvantaged starting situations, the opportunity to access online studies can help them to complete their studies and obtain a university degree, a necessary but not sufficient certification to obtain a job of a certain quality in a context of a clear increase in job insecurity and temporary employment.

In recent decades the access to university has become more equitable. However, the analysis of inequity in higher education has shown that students’ opportunities at university differ according to their social origin, and that socioeconomic status remains a significant determinant of differences in study conditions and the quality of the education provided, as well as likelihood of graduation. Latest research, collected in “In person, hybrid and online higher education: supporting students’ complex trajectories” conclude that the social background furthermore continues to influence students’ academic outcomes at university: lower social backgrounds students are less likely to graduate and more likely to dropout than their peers, irrespective of the type of change trajectory. Specifically, the “going virtual” option – trajectories of modality change – does not increase the probability of graduation and widens the gap in drop-out rates according to students’ social background. However, educational continuity some years after the university access may indicate that this option functions as a pathway for student retention. Nevertheless, longer time horizons need to be introduced to assess whether this retention allows students from lower social backgrounds to obtain a university degree (Sánchez-Gelabert & Elias, 2023).

In short, the analysis of university trajectories reveals an increase in the complexity of students’ trajectories and the diverse ways in which they navigate the higher education system. More importantly, it highlights the persistent relevance of social background not only in academic outcomes, but also in patterns of progression through university that disadvantage students from lower social backgrounds. Moreover, it is crucial to analyse and understand the role of technology on the social dimension of universities (Ariño, 2014). In this sense, technology could help to improve the flexibility of education and be more adjustable to the different demands and profiles of the students breaking down barriers to graduate learning.

But some of our questions are still unanswered: does this prolongation of the trajectories in online universities really lead to a reduction in university drop-outs, or perhaps in the long run, after a long period of study, students leave the system without a university degree? And what consequences does this have for them in terms of professional insertion and progression?

What role does online universities play in making criteria and procedures more flexible in order to be able to accept students from diverse backgrounds? Do they take these new situations into account? Are there institutional policies that consider this type of student profile? What can they do to achieve real equity in the system, in terms of access, process and exit? Could the technology play a role for helping us to reduce the gap among the different types of students?


Andrews, R., Li, J., & Lovenheim, M. F. (2014). Heterogeneous paths through college: detailed patterns and relationships with graduation and earnings. Economics of Education Review, 42: 93–108.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2014.07.002

Ariño, A. (2014). La dimensión social en la educación superior. RASE, 7(1): 17-41.

Clasemann, C. & Boon, R.D. (2019). Seeking Patterns in Swirl and Drift: Retention, Persistence, and Transfer. New Directions for Institutional Research, 184: 21-32. https://doi.org/10.1002/ir.20319

Haas, C. (2022). Applying Sequence Analysis in Higher Education Research: A Life Course Perspective on Study Trajectories. In Huisman, J. and Tight, M. (Ed.) Theory and Method in Higher Education Research (Theory and Method in Higher Education Research, Vol. 8) (pp. 127–147). Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley.

Haas, C., & Hadjar, A. (2020). Students’ trajectories through higher education: a review of quantitative research. Higher Education, 79: 1099–1118. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00458-5

Sánchez-Gelabert, A. & Elias, M. (2023). Going online? Does transferring to online university increase the likelihood of graduation among students from lower social background? International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 20: 39. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-023-00407-4

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