Retaining Online Students:
3 Expert Perspectives

by Sarah Seigle Peatman, Academic Impressions; Kristen Betts, Drexel University; Mark Parker, Norwich University; and Tom Porch, University of Maryland University College

In the wake of recent declines in online program enrollment across many institutions, renewed attention to online student success and retention has become especially critical. We wanted to hear the best current thinking on improving online student retention, so we reached out to a panel of three accomplished experts in this area:

  • Dr. Kristen Betts, Clinical Professor in the EdD Program in Educational Leadership & Management at Drexel University
  • Dr. Mark Parker, Associate Professor & Chair, Division of Continuing Studies, College of Graduate and Continuing Studies, Norwich University
  • Tom Porch, Student Advising and Retention Manager, University of Maryland University College

You can read our in-depth interview with them below. These three also serve as the faculty for our upcoming workshop, Improving Online Student Retention and Success, where you will have the opportunity to develop a series of action plans to increase online student success at your institution.

In this interview, we asked them for:

  1. Examples of untapped opportunities
  2. Examples of their most successful efforts
  3. Ways to encourage online students to take advantage of support services
  4. Key metrics to track

1. Examples of untapped opportunities

Sarah Seigle Peatman, AI. Looking across the landscape of online programs, what do you see as the biggest untapped opportunities for improving online student success?

Photo: Kristen BettsKristen Betts, Drexel University. One of the biggest untapped opportunities for improving online student success is to get a better institutional understanding around cognitive and non-cognitive factors associated with student retention, completion, and attrition. Research often links cognitive measures (e.g., GPA, rank, achievement tests, etc.) to academic success. However, for non-traditional students, these measures may be more elusive. According the 2016 Learning House Report, the average age of today's online undergraduate student is 29 years. These students may be enrolling in higher education for the first time, re-enrolling after stopping out at a previous institution, or seeking additional credentials. Therefore, cognitive measures for non-traditional students may not have the same value as they do for recent high school graduates.

With such diversity in today's student population, institutions should consider non-cognitive measures and align findings with student success programming, including orientation, advising, and support services. Traditionally, non-cognitive measures have focused on motivation, time management, and self-regulation. More recently, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) has expanded this to a framework that includes five categories of non-cognitive factors that have been shown to be related to student success, including:

  1. Academic behaviors
  2. Academic perseverance
  3. Social skills
  4. Learning strategies
  5. Academic mindsets

This framework provides a more holistic approach to student behaviors, concepts, skills, and strategies that should be considered in current and future programming.

Photo: Mark ParkerMark Parker, Norwich University. I would say that intake assessment of new students' readiness is an under-utilized opportunity.  Getting a clear picture of your incoming students' proficiency levels in critical success factors like expository writing, critical thinking, and information literacy is vital in deciding what kinds of interventions and support services are needed, and which students are likely to need them the most. Online students tend to come with a very wide range of prior education experiences and foundations, and assessing your institution's key success factors at the outset can help you deploy your resources more efficiently to improve student success.

Photo: Tom PorchTom Porch, UMUC. There are many untapped opportunities for improving online student success - which makes this an exciting space to be in right now! One effort I think every institution can undertake is alignment of academic and administrative strategies. There is no shortage of great ideas employed by institutions to drive online student success. What we often find, however, is that the efforts across an institution are duplicative in nature due to a lack of alignment in structure and/or communication.

Partly because of this, efforts to improve online student success often do not impact students as intended. Or, worse, if a particular initiative proves successful, but there is no alignment at the institution, the impactful initiative is not likely to be operationalized. How often have we asked the question, "Whatever happened to [fill in your initiative here]? I thought that was helpful to students." We need to make alignment around online student success a strategic objective and take specific steps toward it.

2. Examples of successful efforts

Sarah Seigle Peatman, AI. Speaking of opportunities, a question for each of you: at your institution, where have you seen the greatest success recently in improving online student retention and success?

Kristen Betts, Drexel University. Drexel University has been very proactive with online student retention and success. There is a multi-tiered, high-touch approach to support early online engagement. We offer a free online course that allows prospective students to "test-drive" the Blackboard learning environment before they enroll, to determine if it is a good fit for meeting their academic needs. Designed to mirror the quality of Drexel's online classroom experience, this test drive allows potential students to take part in interactive discussion forums and submit practice assignments. They also learn more about individual programs, admission requirements, and support services, and they have an opportunity to connect with other online students, faculty, and staff.

Upon acceptance into an online program, students are invited to participate in an online orientation where they are welcomed into the Drexel community, while also introduced to student support services, furnished with a variety of downloadable tools for managing time and course load, and provided with key information to support their plan of study. While the first week of classes can often be very stressful for new students (which, in some cases, is linked to early attrition), this multi-tiered approach has been very successful in creating a positive climate for newly matriculated students. Students now login on day one and can focus their attention on engaging with the course content and getting to know their instructor, as well as their peers.

Mark Parker, Norwich University. One of our recent successes has been with faculty training and development. Faculty are a sometimes overlooked yet critical component of an institution's retention and success initiatives because of their continual contact with students and the impact they can have on students' likelihood of accessing and using resources. Over the last 18 months we have significantly revised our new online instructor training and our ongoing faculty development activities, to focus more clearly on the institution's expectations for things like timeliness and quality of feedback to students on assignments. As we assess these areas, we expect to find a positive effect on retention and success rates.

Tom Porch, UMUC. At UMUC, recent redesign of some of our online programs has shown promise in improving online student retention and success. The students' learning experiences will be more aligned with how they will learn in the real world, and students are to be evaluated by what they can do, not just what they know. UMUC is also using student data to move from a predictive data analytics platform to a prescriptive advising model. In other words, knowing what may happen to students is only half the battle. Identifying what to do to help each student is the important part! Internally, we often use the following phrase to guide our strategy: right student; right treatment; right time.

3. Ways to encourage online students to take advantage of support services

Sarah Seigle Peatman, AI. Next, how should institutions go about encouraging online students to engage with and take advantage of the online support services they provide?

Kristen Betts, Drexel University. Student support services need to be central to the online program; student services should not be viewed as an “add on” or services that students only seek when they are struggling. With today's tuition rates, student support services should be part of the institutional difference or institutional advantage.

At Drexel University, student support services are integrated into the online student experience from matriculation and the student orientation, to the curricular and co-curricular experience. As a clinical professor who teaches in an online master's degree program and online doctoral degree program, I work closely with our student support services specialists. The courses that I teach integrate the library, writing center, career development center, and student affairs as part of planned "live" sessions and assignments.

Throughout the academic year, I also share with my students information and links to streamed campus events that spotlight new or program-related student services. Although my students, who live across the United States as well as internationally, may infrequently or never come to campus, they know what support services are available and how to access them. This is such an important part of the Drexel Difference, and is key to engaging students both in and outside of the classroom.

Mark Parker, Norwich University. I think having the actual classroom instructors refer students to support services is probably the most effective means to increase usage.  The instructor is, in all likelihood, the person with whom a student has the most, and most frequent, contact. Further, an instructor referral to resources is typically couched in the context of an actual online class. For example, I’m thinking here of an instructor who provides feedback on the writing proficiency displayed by a student in a particular assignment and then follows up by referring the student to the institution's writing center. Institutions would do well to ensure that instructors have detailed information and pathways to refer students to the support services.

4. Key metrics to track

Sarah Seigle Peatman, AI. In your view, what are the most important metrics to track if you are in the early stages of putting together a plan for online student retention and success? Are these metrics different, do you think, than what many would expect?

Kristen Betts, Drexel University. While completion may be considered a definitive metric of any plan, there are other important metrics that support and ultimately lead to completion. Keep in mind that lexicon is important when identifying metrics to ensure clarity and understanding with all measures.

Metrics to consider for the early stages of an online student success plan:

  • Student Readiness
  • Student Engagement
  • Academic Performance
  • First Semester/Quarter Retention
  • First Year Retention
  • Stop-out & Withdraw
  • Student Satisfaction
  • Licensure Exam Pass Rates
  • Time to Completion
  • Graduation Rates
  • Transfer Rates
  • Placement (e.g., employment, graduate program, and/or professional advancement)

Mark Parker, Norwich University. Well, in addition to the baseline retention metrics such as term-to-term and year-to-year reenrollment rates, I’d probably advise an institution to establish a set of academic success factors at the outset and begin tracking them immediately, both in new incoming students and in currently enrolled students.

For instance, most institutions long ago identified writing proficiency as a critical success factor for online students. An institution would do well to determine the minimum level of writing proficiency required for success and then assess that proficiency in its students. This allows you to identify those who are at risk of failure or attrition because of it and make decisions about how to invest resources in support services such as writing centers, online tutoring, and so on.

Tom Porch, UMUC. The actual list of metrics should not vary too much between institutions (e.g., first-term/first-year student retention; persistence and re-enrollment; course completion; GPA; velocity; etc.). However, where institutions prioritize their resources and energy will vary. What's important to one institution may not be as relevant to another. Institutions should be asking certain questions in the planning stages to help you prioritize, including:

  • Does your institution have clearly articulated online retention and online student success goals?
  • Is everyone clear on the definition of online retention and online student success? (Does each department define this differently?)
  • Is there a particular student population that will yield your institution the biggest “lift” in terms of online student success?
  • How long will it take for your institution to see success if an initiative is implemented?

Prioritizing your efforts will be more strategic if the right questions are asked up front.

Sarah Seigle Peatman, AI. Thank you all! I appreciate your insights on this issue, and I look forward to speaking with you further at the upcoming Improving Online Student Retention and Success workshop!