This study by Patterson & McFadden (2009) provides us a window into one of the burning questions in higher education right now: The effectiveness of distance education (or online) degree programs versus traditional "brick-n-mortar" programs. The results are interesting for the task of talent development. Patterson & McFadden have seen a very significant attrition rate for the two online programs that were studied, whereas the rate for the traditional programs was much lower. Age was not a factor for the online programs, however it was for the traditional campus-based programs (older students were more likely to drop). The study does not make a distinction for those attending the programs as to whether students are attending for purely academic purposes in preparation for future work, or to augment existing degrees as a means of advancing in their current job. Patterson & McFadden also do not make a distinction between the type of institution each program is from, be they purely online or a traditional U.
What the results seem to indicate is that perhaps the online audiences find it easier to drop out. I would hypothesize that this may be because the in-person connection is not there, whereas with campus-based programs there is a direct social element, and a one-to-one interface with the professor. What this may mean for companies is that the accountability systems on the academic side (grades, GPA) may not be enough to ensure that employees in an organization are persisting in their development. Many business do have "learner-side" accountability in the form of pay increases requisite with degree advancement, and some still provide educational reimbursement for successful completion of classes and programs of study. I think what would interest me more in these results is a study of the motivations behind students in these programs, particularly those that are taking them to augment their existing degrees and experience in the workplace.
This issue is also important as we look to the future of higher education. One of the most pressing problems of late has been the astronomical costs associated with getting a degree today. Obtaining an undergraduate degree is often cost enough, however companies today are increasingly looking for those that have completed graduate and doctoral programs. Part of this search is borne from an employer's market with respect to job openings at present, but another factor is global competition. If we add the sort of drop out rate Patterson & McFadden have seen to the mix, the state of the educated and job-ready populace of the future is one to be concerned with.