College of Education professor Justin Ortagus is a prominent figure in educational research, dedicated to advancing our understanding of higher education. His collaborative efforts have led to two seminal studies that address pivotal issues in education, setting a standard for educators across the field. These studies, published in journals of the American Educational Research Association, explore the impact of exclusively online degree programs on student completion rates and the intricate relationship between state higher education funding strategies and student success, particularly among historically underserved students. Ortagus’ work not only contributes to the body of knowledge in higher education but also offers practical insights that can drive meaningful change.

“Although I’m excited that these studies were published in great outlets around the same time, it’s important to clarify that each study represents years of collaborative work,” noted Ortagus, director of the Institute of Higher Education. “Whether the focus is online education or how states fund colleges, these studies tackle big questions and offer evidence-based strategies to improve the opportunities and outcomes of college students.”

Exploring Exclusively Online Degree Programs

In their first study, Ortagus and his team delved into the effectiveness of exclusively online degree programs using national data and a quasi-experimental design. Their findings uncover a concerning trend: students enrolled in exclusively online programs are less likely to complete their bachelor’s degree compared to those engaged in a combination of online and face-to-face coursework. This trend persists across underrepresented demographic groups and is driven largely by for-profit four-year institutions.

Of particular note is the study’s attention to how online education affects different types of students. The study highlights disparities in completion rates among minoritized student populations. Despite accounting for various factors, the negative impact of exclusively online enrollment remains significant, emphasizing the need for comprehensive interventions to support student success in digital learning environments.

Unraveling State Higher Education Funding Strategies

Equally impactful, Ortagus and his team also investigated the complex relationship between state higher education funding strategies and student outcomes, with a focus on racially minoritized students. Through longitudinal data analysis and thorough examination, they reveal nuanced connections between funding mechanisms and college access and success.

Contrary to expectations, the study finds no substantial correlations between funding strategies and student outcomes at public universities. However, at community colleges, hybrid funding models incorporating base adjustments and enrollment or performance components show promise in increasing enrollment rates. Nevertheless, translating increased enrollment into completion remains a multifaceted challenge, necessitating further exploration and targeted interventions.

These scholarly pursuits provide invaluable insights into the complicated dynamics of higher education. Through meticulous research and impactful collaboration, Ortagus sheds light on critical issues surrounding exclusively online degree programs and state funding strategies, establishing a precedent for researchers and policymakers seeking to improve student outcomes. By harnessing these insights, stakeholders in higher education can work towards closing the persistent attainment gaps facing historically underserved college students.

Newly funded research

In addition to these recent publications, Ortagus has recently secured grants through the Institute of Educational Sciences as Principal Investigator (PI) and Co-PI respectively. Together the grants total nearly $4.4 million in research funding.

The Effects of Completing College-Level Courses in High School on Postsecondary Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
This research project aims to estimate how taking college-level courses in high school affects students’ college enrollment, persistence, and completion. The researchers will conduct a meta-analysis of studies from 2000 to 2025 to determine the overall benefits and how these effects vary among different student groups and program types. They will systematically review and code each study, then use advanced meta-analysis techniques to synthesize the findings and share the results with policymakers, practitioners, and researchers. Learn more.

Project REACT: A Multisite Randomized Controlled Trial to Improve College Re-Enrollment and Completion for Stopped-Out Students
The purpose of this research project is to evaluate the effectiveness, implementation, and cost of the REACT program, which aims to help community college students who are close to completing their degrees but have stopped out. The program includes multimodal messaging, tuition waivers for up to five courses, and student support services such as advising and personalized degree mapping. Researchers will work with four colleges in Florida to recruit 3,700 students and implement the program over five semesters, testing its impact on re-enrollment and degree completion while also gathering feedback from administrators and students for improvement. Learn more.

Justin Ortagus, Ph.D.