Fri, Feb 22, 2013 5:15 PM EST

Online education is just about the hottest new trend in education these days. In 2007, more than a million K-12 students took an online course; that number was itself a 47 percent increase over the previous two years. And the numbers are increasing rapidly as legislators tout online learning plans as a cost-effective answers to budget woes. But while [the jury's still out]( on the academic efficacy of online education programs, new research suggests that these trendy education programs may well be exacerbating very old racial inequities in education. In a [working paper]( by Columbia University's Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggers, they lay out findings from their study of half a million online courses taken by more than 40,000 community and technical-college students in the state of Washington. What they found is that students who have a harder time in traditional offline higher education are no better served by online courses. Xu and Jaggers, who is the assistant director of the Community College Research Center, found that all students, no matter their race, age or gender, who took online courses were actually less likely to finish their degree. But males and black students and those who came to their courses with less academic preparation than their classmates were less able to adapt to online course formats. "We found that the gap is stronger in the underrepresented and under-prepared students," Jaggers told the [Chronicle of Higher Education]( "They're falling farther behind than if they were taking face-to-face courses." "If this pattern holds true across other states and educational sectors, it would imply that the continued expansion of online learning could strengthen, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity," Jaggers and Xu wrote in their paper. The news is troubling because online education is sweeping across the country, and not just in community and technical colleges. New York and Chicago have their own pilot initiatives centered around online education. Last month in California, the state college system [rolled out]( a pilot online education partnership. Starting in 2011, Florida made it [mandatory]( for every ninth grader to take an online course. And just last month in Idaho, less than three months after voters rejected a bill requiring high school students to take four online courses, the state legislature [revived it](