This post has recently been updated. It was originally published on May 26th, 2017. You have found and successfully recruited online students into your higher education programs. Congratulations! You are among the emerging forward-thinkers that realize non-traditional students are a significant part of your institution’s future success. Unfortunately, finding and recruiting such students is only part of your challenge. The other key piece is keeping students enrolled and engaged, and supporting them through graduation. No one said it was easy. A strategic plan combining efforts between resources within your organization and your key partners will be vital to the ongoing success of this important and developing population. Here are four ways to help get you them to the finish line.
I. Provide Academic Advisors, Who Will in Turn Provide Initial and Ongoing Support
If it sounds simple… It’s because it is. So is tying your shoelaces. Yet legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden started each annual crop of future champions the same way: By walking them through tying their shoes and pulling up their socks.
“Now pull it up in the back, pull it up real good, real strong. Now run your hand around the little toe area … make sure there are no wrinkles and then pull it back up. Check the heel area. We don’t want any sign of a wrinkle about it … The wrinkle will be sure you get blisters, and those blisters are going to make you lose playing time, and if you’re good enough, your loss of playing time might get the coach fired.”
Academic advisors serve a vital role for students. They are responsible for providing initial information at a time when students need step-by-step coaching the most. For example, advisors can help them make decisions about the types of programs they want to enroll in. Further, they are resources students can contact if issues arise during the lifetime of their studies. Think about the average online or non-traditional student. Think about how that person might be a little [more] disconnected with the academic process or even technology than a millennial coming up the traditional path. Might a mite of extra hand-holding help the non-traditional student avoid the “blister” from the get-go? Keep them playing… err… studying? Even better would be academic advisors whose process is to check in with students proactively. Did they receive a report from an instructor that the student was struggling? Failing a class even? If you want to get really fancy, Action Analysis and predictive modeling can help forecast student success, or uncover issues before they become critical problems… Address them quickly enough, and you can really help drive retention.
Online orientation may seem like a chore initially, but students report a variety of benefits, including avoidance of embarrassment. Even if the only thing a student gets from the online orientation process is a definition of what asynchronous education is and what is expected of them, that can set them up for future class performance (again driving them towards graduation). Through online orientation you can:
Dispel the Mystery – Introduce students to the online classroom and virtual learning process. Remove the initial fear or anxiety around taking an online course the first time. Offer a forum for answers and assistance before the questions even come up.
Establish Expectations – Familiarize students with the policies and procedures your institution demands from each and every one of them. Cover everything from grading policies to academic honesty.
Shorten the Learning Curve – Time is precious to post-traditional students; many of them are working or raising families while driving themselves through your online programs. Helping these students to start workingimmediately can help them realize your value… And to keep realizing it through graduation.
III. Provide Fast and Reliable Technical Support
Every new system – including of course your own learning management systems for online students – has its own features, functions, tricks… and areas for improvement. Non-traditional students, especially less technically savvy ones, can experience frustration slogging through tutorials, guides, or FAQs every time they need a little help. Many larger institutions provide a technical support center or dedicated help desk hours devoted to students. That way they can direct students’ precious time where we all want it: on learning the curriculum. Takeaway: Some form of technical support is essential to the success of your online student population.
IV. Offer Career Resources for Your Students
Who Are Today’s Post-Traditional College Students? Knowing who your students – your customers – are is the first step in delivering value to this population. “During a challenging economy, adults may find themselves having to search for a job at a time in life when they believe they are settled, only to realize they must now obtain a degree if they want to remain competitive.” The takeaway here is simple: If you can provide career resources for students during their last year, you will encourage them to get to, and complete, that last year! In terms of really delivering a return on investment for online students who are specifically looking for degrees to drive their own careers, there may be no better way to support success.
“Your best customer is your current customer”
Finding and enrolling potential students is an absolutely essential part of growing any academic institution… but it is less than half the job. A frankly shocking number of marketing and admissions departments put all their focus on generating student enrollments, with not nearly enough focus on areas where [more] tuition dollars are easier to come by than a new admission. Student retention – and ultimately the success of any online program – is the other key component. As you can see, a strategic plan and ongoing commitment by the institution to provide resources to both students and staff is imperative. These four tips are only part of a complete strategy. Developing your institution’s best strategies to address this growing demographic requires that you know who they are. To learn more about today’s post-traditional student and ways to attract and service this growing demographic, download: Post-Traditional College Students: Attracting and Serving the New Majority.