Improve Persistence Among Enrolled Online Students

By: Emma Rose May 06, 2020

Improve Persistence Among Enrolled Online Students

Student retention is a pressing issue for all institutions of higher education. Keeping students enrolled maximizes Return on Investment, boosts your program’s reputation, and helps you succeed in a competitive market. The key to all of this is engagement. The more engaged students are, the more likely they are to stay.

Online programs may have a slight advantage here. Some studies have found higher persistence among students who took classes online. Even so, digital learning programs face particular challenges when it comes to engagement. Some of the most commonly recommended methods don’t translate directly to the online world. However, it is possible to improve persistence with the right strategies. 

Student persistence: what’s at stake

Many institutions struggle to retain students. Only 43.7 percent of students graduated from their original four-year institution within four years. By year six, more than a third of students still won’t have their degree.

That’s bad news for students and institutions. Keeping a student is more cost-effective than finding a new one. Marketing, enrollment advising, and processing costs all add up. The more students you keep enrolled through graduation, the higher your return on investment.

Completion rates can also affect opportunities for funding. More states are using completion-based funding models. As a result, schools with poor retention might end up with fewer resources. Whether you like these models or not, they do show that governments and the public are concerned about student persistence. 

As consumers question the value of higher education, colleges are under greater pressure to deliver positive outcomes. Meanwhile, the higher education market is more competitive than ever. Between 2001 and 2018, we added 23 percent more public institutions. Students have options. If you’re not meeting their needs, they might go looking for an institution that will.

Strategies for improving persistence

Retention is hard to predict. Some factors are outside your control no matter how carefully you plan. However, engagement has been shown to increase persistence. Engaged students have clear plans and defined goals. Their advisors give them meaningful and personalized guidance. They believe their instructors care about them and their success. They interact with fellow students. When facing challenges, they know where to turn for help. Building this kind of engagement with online students takes creative thinking.

If you’re consistently meeting enrollment goals, your institution is probably good at engaging leads. That same support should follow them through graduation. These four strategies can help:

1. Identify at-risk students

Post-traditional students tend to be a high-risk population because they have many other demands on their time like work and family obligations. Some students are statistically at higher risk of dropping out. First-generation college students, those with low incomes, students from minority populations, part-time students, and those who have not declared a major all have lower persistence rates. Identify at-risk students early and put interventions in place to address potential barriers to success from the beginning.

Don’t rely purely on demographics to identify student risk factors. Ask the students directly. Early advising sessions are a great time to ask students what circumstances they think might prevent them from graduating. Together you can build strategies to address those concerns before they happen. 

Create resources for the most common student problems. Downloadable resources, webinars, and advising tools can help students learn to budget, manage their time, handle stress, or deal with negative feedback. Although each student is unique, these tools can be used again and again. 

2. Provide high-quality advising

In an effort to boost retention, some schools are increasing the frequency of advising sessions. This could have a positive effect, but only if the advising is of high quality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NSSE found that the quality of advising was more important than how often students met with advisors. Students who rated their interactions as high-quality were 17 percentage points more likely to say they would return for a second year. 

While academic advisors are responsible for formal advising sessions, instructors can help as well. Interaction with professors and other instructors outside the classroom can encourage a stronger sense of belonging. For online students, scheduled phone calls or video chat sessions with instructors can be helpful. Encourage instructors to participate in group chats or on social media as well.

3. Connect students to improve persistence

Being able to study anytime, anywhere makes online learning convenient. It can also be lonely. Students may feel isolated, as though it’s just them and their computer screen. Meanwhile, the quality of interactions, belongingness, and supportiveness of environment were among the top three engagement indicators among first-year students. Online students might need extra help to connect. 

Create social networks for your student body. This could be groups on public social media sites, or a private proprietary system with areas for students in different programs or classes. Instructors should encourage students to post on these sites and get to know their classmates. 

Email nurturing campaigns can also help students stay connected. Use relevant email messaging to help them build social networks, learn about resources, and understand expectations. You can even create emails that trigger based on student actions. For example, a congratulations email to a student who passes a test, or a “need help?” email for a student who posts about their struggles in a particular class. 

Finally, instructors should encourage group projects and focus groups whenever possible. With video conferencing, group chats, and other modern technology, students need not be in the same building to work together. This approach both helps build engagement and mirrors the work environment in many businesses today. 

4. Stay alert to student needs

Students may need support at any time while enrolled. While first-year students are at high risk, even seniors sometimes drop out due to challenges. Classes tend to get more challenging as students progress, which can add pressure. Meanwhile, students close to the end of school may start looking for a new job or promotion, which can add even more stress. 

Monitor student achievement and behavior. Technology can help you spot lower grades or decreased effort before they become a habit. You can even set up tracking that flags students who post discouraged comments online. Follow up with these students quickly to help them stay engaged. 

These four strategies can help you improve persistence among students at all levels. Track results to see how each one affects your retention metrics. For help enrolling or retaining students, contact EducationDynamics. We help colleges and universities find, enroll, and retain the right students through our Contact Center services.