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How Mentors Can Improve Online Graduate Student Attrition Rates

By Narjis Hyder, Judith Gilliam / January 2015

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In the United States, the rate of attrition for doctoral programs is alarmingly high. Half of the students who begin a doctoral program fail to complete their degree [1]. One of the major issues causing such high rates of attrition and poor retention of students is the culture of blaming the student for dropping out rather than looking to the school, faculty, or administrators [1]. Efforts to improve this rate should be focused on financial support, professional development, academic preparation, and mentoring relationships. Because experienced mentors share and provide guidance, mentoring can be beneficial to any student who may need help. Taylor and Neimeyer deduced that higher levels of mentoring support contribute to higher levels of progress in their mentees' graduate school careers, research publication, and career options [2].

Benefits and Requirements of Successful Mentoring

This is not a new issue. As far back as 2004, the Council of Graduate Schools was supporting research work addressing the issue of Ph.D. attrition. The Ph.D. Completion Project acknowledged mentoring as the cornerstone of the most effective and promising practices [3]. The Council emphasized the significance of mentorships for doctoral students, particularly in terms of effective monitoring and advising. Their conclusion was more frequent interaction between graduate students and faculty would increase doctoral completion [3].

Holley and Caldwell's qualitative case study of doctoral mentoring at a public, four-year research university found the benefits for the graduate student were professional networking, academic development, and enhanced campus opportunities [4]. Their conclusion was a successful doctoral mentoring program is dependent on several factors. These factors include the ability of faculty members to serve as mentors, the interest of doctoral student participants, and the administrative willingness to coordinate the mentoring program.

The benefits of mentoring have also been seen in non-graduate study environments. Many studies from the business arena have found positive relationships among mentors and mentees' promotions and compensations. Relationships can be classified as instrumental (coaching, sponsorships, etc.) or psychosocial (role models, empathy and counseling). Today, the predominant practice of mentoring relationship is described as reciprocal. The traditional relationship is described as hierarchal where the faculty member is the expert and the student is the learner 5].

Challenges for Online Programs

As for online doctoral programs, there are more obstacles to overcome when considering mentoring. Which is especially true when we consider that graduate students are more likely to have careers and family. Although on the surface online programs appear to be a one-size-fit-all solution, "…online program attrition rates are consistently higher than attrition rates of traditional on-site delivery methods" [6]. Frankly, the typical online student, who is also working and meeting family obligations, faces more distractions, which may account for a higher attrition rate than is seen in onsite classrooms.

In 2001, the Department of Adult Education at the University of Georgia implemented an e-mentoring program for online graduate students, which produced positive results in the area of retention. Students expressed a high level of satisfaction with the experience, in particular the close relationship between faculty and students. The study also noted not only did the confidence level of the students increase, but the quality of work offered by students in the program improved as well [7].

A Model for Online Mentoring

Mentoring programs have been offered at colleges and universities for decades, but as the field of distance education has increased significantly so has e-mentoring. A 2013 study focused on the e-mentoring program at UMUC. The research indicated the number of courses completed by the mentees was significantly higher than the number of courses completed by a group of participants who did not have mentors, demonstrating a correlation between mentorship and student persistence [8].

The Biotechnology program at UMUC maintains an e-mentoring program in which the mentor-mentee relationships are considered essential for student success [8]. Their mentoring model consists of:

  1. Graduate level resources embedded in the degree program.
  2. Participants who are geographically dispersed and use web-based technologies to enable flexibility in participation and management of resources.
  3. A potentially sustainable structure through the participation of program graduates as mentors.
  4. A mentor assistant (MA) for each mentor-mentee pair to facilitate and monitor their interaction, and to ensure that any questions or issues are addressed promptly.

Factors related to a successful, productive online mentoring relationship consist of pairing mentees with mentors based primarily on shared interests, including specialization, and secondarily, on common location [8]. Initial orientations are also advised between the mentors and mentees to discuss details regarding expectations from the graduate program for the student, as well as what student expectations are from the program. Other factors include the completion of a professional action plan that outlines goals along with action items for achieving each goal. Brief bios of the mentors are given to mentees and both parties maintain a journal of communication.

Establishing Mentor-Mentee Relationships

Lechuga's study of faculty-graduate student mentoring relationships revealed three broad descriptors that characterize faculty roles and responsibilities [9]:
  1. Successful mentor-mentee relationships foster student success. Increased employment opportunities, development of academic and career related skills, and growth are a few of the positive outcomes.
  2. Research indicates graduate students' research training, development of professional identity, and career involvement is associated with a positive relationship between faculty and the graduate student.
  3. Scholars have explored the relationship between mentors and mentees in various ways such as verbal and non-verbal language. Smiling, posture in a relaxed form, positive feedback to the mentee, and directly addressing the student by name increases student motivation among mentees.
Some barriers to mentoring include a lack of confidence in the mentee and a lack of time to offer additional instruction by the mentor.

The Daloz mentorship model for the teaching of adults suggests: "…effective mentors can encourage and partner with protégés at different times in their learning journeys by offering support, challenge, and vision. Daloz emphasizes a commitment to nurture the relationship and to create a climate of trust in which the protégé feels safe to risk taking on new perspectives and make mistakes. In the area of challenge, Daloz proposed the idea of introducing tension by raising disorienting questions or setting tasks. In addition, in the area of vision, Daloz recommended providing a sense of direction and movement towards where the journey leads"[10].

Self-efficacy theory, which suggests task specific or self-confidence beliefs are formed as a result of past experiences, is also relevant to mentoring. Therefore, graduate students who have had positive experiences as mentors may be associated to an increase in self-concept [10].

Online Mentoring Can Improve Attrition Rates

Mentoring can benefit online graduate students by providing support whether through challenges, vision, or a climate of trust. This environment, which an online student may lack when compared to an onsite student, can be created through mentoring that provides guidance and a sense of security through school support. This would help the online student focus on completing the online graduate program, leading to improvements in the overall attrition rate for online graduate students.


[1] Cassuto, L. Ph.D. Attrition: How much is too much? The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 1, 2013.

[2] Taylor, J. M., and Neimeyer, G. Graduate schools mentoring in clinical, counselling, and experimental academic programs: An exploratory study. Counselling Psychology Quarterly 22, 2 (2009), 257-266. doi: 10.1080/09515070903157289

[3] Council of Graduate Schools. Ph.D. completion and attrition: Policies and practices to promote student success. Ph.D. Completion Project. Council of Graduate Schools, Washington, D.C., 2010.

[4] Holley, K., and Caldwell, M. L. The challenges of designing and implementing a doctoral student mentoring program. Innovative Higher Education 37, 3 (2012), 243-253. doi: 10.1007/s10755-011-9203-y

[5] Jaeger, A., Sandmann, L., and Kim, J. Advising graduate students doing community engaged dissertation research: The advisor-advisee relationship. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 15, 4 (2011), 5-26.

[6] Schaeffer, C. and Konetes, G. Impact of learning engagement on attrition rates and student success in online learning. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 7, 5 (2010).

[7] Truluck, J. Establishing a mentoring plan for improving retention in online graduate degree programs. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration X, I (Spring 2007).

[8] Khan R., and Gogos, A. Online mentoring for biotechnology graduate students: An industry academia partnership. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 17, 1 (2013), 89-107.

[9] Legucha, V. M. Faculty-graduate student mentoring relationships: Mentors' perceived roles and responsibilities. Higher Education 62, 6 (2011), 757-771. doi: 10.1007/s10734-011-9416-0

[10] Melrose, S. Mentoring online graduate students: Partners in scholarship. Education for Primary Care 17, 1 (2006), 57-62.

About the Authors

Currently, Dr. Narjis Hyder is teaching at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in the Department of Educational Leadership and serves as faculty for the College of Education at Argosy University Online. She received her doctorate in educational leadership (2004) and a masters degree in professional counseling from Concordia University. In addition, she received a master's degree in secondary teacher education (2009) from National Louis University. Dr. Hyder's published doctoral dissertation was titled "Stress among Clinical Psychology Doctoral Students."

Dr. Judith Gilliam served for more than 40 years in public, private, and Department of Defense educational settings. Her career included extensive duties in K-12 education as an Assistant Superintendent in Fulton County Schools, Atlanta, GA; Chief Academic Officer, Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum and Instruction and Area Superintendent Cobb County Schools, Marietta, GA; Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum and Instruction, Gainesville City Schools, Gainesville, GA; and Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Personnel, Glynn County Schools, Brunswick, GA. She also held several school principalships and professorial positions in state, private, and proprietary colleges and universities; she also has worked as an educational consultant. She is currently an assistant professor at Argosy University.

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