Improving Completion Rates for Online Students

person typing on a laptop

(An earlier version of this article ran in April 2010.)

With the percentage of students who are taking online courses rising rapidly (a 17% increase in 2009 alone), improving completion rates for online students (many of whom are returning, adult learners) will likely become a key priority for higher education.

In an interview with Academic Impressions, Ken Udas, CEO of UMassOnline, offers his advice on how academic leaders can promote higher completion rates as their institutions strive to meet a growing demand among adult learners for online and distance education.

Where You Can Make the Most Difference

Udas suggests that there are two areas where relatively small investments in online student retention can see significant returns:

  • Early intervention to ensure course completion
  • Engaging stop-outs

Encouraging Course Completion

First, Udas suggests, identify your “warning signals,” your indicators that a student engaged in online coursework may be at a higher risk of not completing the course; then set up a process for immediate response to those signals.

Warning signals for online learners might include:

  • How many credits the student is registered for — and correlate that with the student’s past GPA. If you have an adult learner who is working full-time, raising children, and taking an extremely full courseload, you may need an adviser to reach out to the student to have a frank discussion or to offer support.
  • When learners order course materials — are they ordering materials too late to receive them in time for the start of the course?
  • If you are using a learning management system (LMS), you can identify when learners have last logged on or posted a contribution to the class; you can use this LMS data to drive early interventions. For example, if in the first week of the course a student has logged in only once or not at all, your faculty can reach out to the student and, if appropriate, refer them to an outreach adviser.
  • Certain courses may regularly have a lower success rate. Identify where your lowest rates are, and supply free or low-cost, low-barrier remedial support.

For example, suppose that your online calculus course has a 40% completion rate each semester. Once you know this, you can respond by making tutoring services available, whether face-to-face or in the form a virtual math lab. Udas cites one institution that runs “Calculus Camps” to increase the success rate in math courses. The virtual math lab serves to help students get up to speed on the parts of calculus that prove most frequently troublesome. “Provide them with the basic tools for success.”

The Role of the Academic Adviser

Students taking traditional courses in physical classroom facilities often step into a well-developed network of faculty advisers and peer support. Udas warns that this is most often not the case with online or distance learners, particularly adult students. “Adult learners may be juggling children and work,” he notes. “They may never set foot on your campus.”

Udas notes that one common mistake made by returning adult learners is to take a credit overload their first semester. They want to move quickly and they may be planning for promotion or a career transition. “It is the adviser’s job to help them put that first semester in perspective,” Udas suggests. “Maybe this first semester it doesn’t make sense to take a credit overload. Maybe this calculus course is very demanding, and they might not want to take many other courses simultaneously.” Having an adviser serve as the voice of reason and as a partner in the student’s success at this early moment is critical.

“Typically, if students are overloaded and overwhelmed and do not complete their first semester, they don’t come back. We need to get them in a pattern that helps set them up for ongoing success.”
Ken Udas, UMassOnline

Udas also recommends offering downloadable orientation materials that can be distributed to family members — spouses and children — that will help them understand what their family member is getting into and what support the student will need at home.

Also, make certain that you invest in training and assigning the right advisers.

“It is absolutely critical to have qualified advisers who understand the demographic with whom they are working.”
Ken Udas, UMassOnline

For example, an adviser who works mostly with 18-year-old students may not understand the capacity constraints and opportunities adult learners have. And an adviser who has never been in the military may not be best suited to address the challenges faced by a military student. “Your students need good advice and on-target advice right from the beginning.”

Engaging Stop-Outs

Udas suggests that it is the exception to find an adult learner who can devote themselves to be a full-time student. It is not unusual to have their degree stretch out to 8-10 years, and a lot can happen in that decade. Adult learners may take a few semesters away due to a job transition or the arrival of a child. If your institution is investing in online programs, it is critical to have a plan in place for how you will keep students engaged during that absence, so as to increase the likelihood that they will return after their hiatus and have a successful next semester.

“We need more outreach to stop-outs…not sales, but outreach. The key is to engage stop-outs in the university community.”
Ken Udas, UMassOnline

Udas suggests that there are a number of ways to do this, but by far the most effective is to establish “social presence” or “peer presence.” This could take the form of a virtual place (whether an interactive website, Facebook, Second Life or other virtual environments, or merely a list-serv) that offers learners access both to academic resources and to an online community:

  • Let learners know that they can get access to an adviser
  • Let them download materials from different courses
  • Invite learners to campus activities
  • A university with a strong athletics program might consider offering a “virtual tailgate” that allows remote learners to get together to watch a game streamed over the internet
  • Stream campus speakers and events
  • Look for opportunities to involve alumni in your online community
  • Identify the key iconic campus locations or landmarks for your campus community, and manifest these “culturally relevant and nostalgic icons” online (for example, through a virtual environment, or through offering photos, videos, and other media through a social networking platform or in Google Wave)

“To keep stop-outs engaged in the life of your university,” Udas suggests, “you need to make the effort more than just sending them a letter with a branded mousepad or a computer bag.” He suggests looking to Penn State World Campus for one successful model.

Establish a Special Fund

Finally, Udas recommends establishing a “special fund” (this could be employee-supported) to offer financial support for your remote learners when extraordinary circumstances arise — as they will. And in some cases this can make all the difference in helping a student stay on and succeed. One practical application of a special fund is to offer microloans for students who are grappling with the high costs of textbooks and other course materials. When Udas tried this program, he saw a nearly 100% payback rate. “Textbook costs hit students hard, and all at once,” he notes. “The microloans made purchasing texts for class more viable for many of our students.