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Changing the Narrative: New directions in online retention

By Andrea Gregg, Penny Ralston-Berg, Alison Carr-Chellman / March 2019

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The growth of online higher education has outpaced residential enrollments for the past six years [1] and adults are a significant population of online learners [2, 3]. While certainly concerns about the efficacy of learning online have not fully gone away, online courses, and often entire online degrees, are now an established part of the contemporary higher education landscape. At the same time, persistence and retention remain important areas of concern for both online learners and the higher education institutions serving them [2]. In this paper, we will identify some of the key challenges adult online learners face, suggest an integrated model for approaching the retention of online learners, and offer specific examples of services and interventions to help with online retention.

Challenges In Online Retention

University leaders in online learning have identified retention and graduation rates the top indicators of quality for online education at their schools [2]. At the same time, recent reports have suggested that retention rates in online higher education might not be as high as those of residential and hybrid settings [4, 5]. The majority of learners in online learning are adults who need to balance multiple responsibilities outside of their education [3, 6, 7]. Most adult learners are working part-time, if not full time and while many are motivated to continue their education by career growth or potential career changes [8]. Difficult choices between coursework and immediate job responsibilities will likely arise. Attending part time to manage competing responsibilities can create financial aid issues [9].

Convenience and the “anytime, anywhere” delivery are often the primary selling points for online higher education among working adults, and for many this is the only way they can actually take courses given other life realities [8]. At the same time, it also means online learners are typically studying in isolation, and, therefore, need to be especially self-directed, self-motivated, and able to regulate their own learning [10, 11]. Additionally, many adults have some college but were unsuccessful in traditional college settings, coming away without a degree [12] and may lack confidence in their abilities to persist and be successful, having been out of a formal academic environment for years [13]. Lastly, recent research has also identified key factors that predict whether or not students are likely to be retained in their online education, including coming in with transfer credits, maintaining a GPA above 2.0, and earning a minimum number of credits each semester, sometimes referred to as “credit velocity” [14].

Traditional Retention Framework

The top challenges for adult online students and reasons for their lower retention rates can easily be seen as largely outside of the university’s sphere of influence. After all, there is little a school can do if students lack self-direction and motivation, cannot afford to attend, and/or do not have time to complete coursework because of competing responsibilities like work and family. For the university serving online learners primary responsibilities include making courses available online, securing instructors and faculty members to teach those courses, and ensuring that administrative systems, like enrollment services, work for online, distance learners [3]. This leads to a model of retention with relatively clear boundaries between a student’s areas of responsibility and areas that lie within the university’s domain (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Traditional view of domains of responsibility—online retention.
[click to enlarge]

Given the history of online higher education, the above model of retention makes sense. Residential universities spend significant time, financial investment, and effort figuring out how to successfully design, develop, and teach courses online, and also how to make complex, administrative systems work for online students [3]. Additionally, nearly everything at most residential universities is designed with “traditional” residential learners in mind. For instance, student facing offices often have standard 8–5 hours, faculty are less available during the summer, and semester schedules include events like spring break.

Some may wonder whether or not online students want, need, or can really take advantage of student services. An online student, for example, isn’t likely to want to join a fraternity or sorority or participate in an event like a dance marathon. Additionally, while teaching and learning might be able to take place in an online asynchronous environment, it is believed that so much else about university life requires face-to-face synchronous interactions. For some, it can be hard to envision things like academic tutoring, mental health services, and peer mentoring being accomplished online in non-superficial ways [15, 16].

Reconsidering Online Retention

More recently, though, a different way of thinking about and offering campus service to online learners has started to emerge [17]. This model involves a more integrated approach to online retention. Increasingly, it is being recognized that improving online retention requires attention to both academic and non-academic student needs [18]. For example, there is an annual online learning conference that “combines both student support and instructional perspectives to improve online student success.” There is also an increasing understanding that non-cognitive factors like growth mindset can be developed among adult, online learners [19].

Instead of dismissing certain areas, like student’s work and family responsibilities and personal learning characteristics, as completely outside the university’s sphere of influence, this new model encourages a holistic consideration of the online learner. After all, if online students at your university fail to be retained because of “life factors” outside the relatively clear-cut domain of academics, it may be wise to consider better ways to support students in these areas. Similarly, if students lack study skills or motivational frameworks that could be taught, offering resources for these areas could have significant positive impact. In this new model, we suggest that instead of thinking of two separate spheres of influence in terms of the student and the university, we consider of a more integrated, holistic approach where the university and students work together toward student success and retention. Responsibility is shared and this model includes not only teaching and learning but also all of the other key areas of importance to online learners. Besides, the model encourages co-ownership and shared responsibility for areas previously viewed as distinct (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Integrated model for online retention.
[click to enlarge]

An integrated approach where online learners are viewed as full students within the university doesn’t mean that you simply replicate residential experiences online. Instead, it means that schools create or adjust services that meet the unique needs of adult, online learners. A recent survey of 1,500 individuals who were currently enrolled, previously enrolled, or intending to enroll within the next year in fully online higher education argues that “[c]ompared to college students who are searching for a campus-based program, online students have unique preferences, needs, and requirements” [20]. Key findings of the report include online students’ preferences for more career services, alternative pedagogical models like competency-based learning, some peer interaction, credit for prior learning both at other schools and on the job, and financial support [20].

Suggested Practices And Interventions

Can schools really do more to support online students in both academic and non-academic ways? Including things like helping students with finances, and balancing family and work responsibilities? What about learner characteristics like motivation and metacognition? Luckily, yes, and there are already a number of services and interventions in existence that you can learn from and think about how to adapt to your unique context. In the following we offer best practices for online learners and provide examples in practice that are already taking place.

Practice 1: Make logistics easy. Navigating the complex structure of the university can be difficult for any student but is particularly challenging for online, adult learners that have likely been out of formal education for a while. Tufts University created a program targeting adult learners specifically designed to enable its students to “focus on learning, not logistics.” While their program is directed to residential students, making processes easier to navigate can benefit all learners and is especially important for online learners who can’t easily ask for help from a classmate or roommate.

Some universities create entirely separate administrative functions for their online offerings and it allows a more agile approach [21]. The idea of a “one stop shop” makes it easier for students who may be unfamiliar with or confused by university systems to efficiently find the resources they need and is based on the premise that systems must be accessible. Traditional roles of staff are changing to provide more holistic support. Examples include ASU’s retention coaches and Oregon State University Ecampus Success Counselors.

Given their importance to online learners, information about transfer credits must be well documented and as streamlined as possible. One study reports that “[a]bout 80 percent of online undergraduates have earned credit elsewhere” [22]. This, paired with the knowledge that the average student attends three institutions prior to earning a degree, means institutions must be prepared to efficiently examine, negotiate, and accept transfer credits [22]. Additionally, if students do stop out, make the readmission process as smooth as possible. For example, consider not forcing students to re-apply but instead use a separate more streamlined process.

Practice 2: Build community. The informal learning that takes place across college campuses in terms of how to navigate the various administrative complexities cannot take place in the same way for online learners. They won’t be able to overhear others chatting in the classroom or at the student center about LMS changes or submitting intent to graduate. This is why schools should consider leveraging social media for their learners, not just to “push” content but also to allow informal spaces where students can pose questions and get advice.

Community can take many forms. The Penn State World Campus provides a variety of student organizations for online students. ASU Online collaborated with an online student to create an app to build their online student community. They created Pitch, an instant messaging platform to connect with other students, faculty, academic advisors, and other supports. Providing opportunities for students to connect isn’t all social. It can also encourage informal peer mentoring and the formation of study groups.

Formal peer mentoring programs such as Ashford University’s CHAMPS Peer Mentoring or the University of Illinois Springfield peer mentors pair new or less experienced students with more experienced or upper-division students. The relationship helps mentees navigate and adjust to learning online.

Community can also develop in the online classroom. Adding activities to encourage peer-to-peer interaction are important for student engagement, but must be purposeful and balanced. Too many forced interactions or poorly designed interactions can be perceived as busy work and actually decrease engagement.

Practice 3: Rethink traditional models. The longer it takes for students to earn a degree, the higher the risk that financial or other issues will impact retention. Several institutions offer ways for students to earn college credit through assessment of knowledge, prior learning, and work experience. Examples include University of Maryland University College’s fast paths to credit and Excelsior College’s learning portfolio assessment.

Online universities also address time to completion with competency-based courses. Many models, such as Purdue University Global’s ExcelTrack and Western Governors University (WGU), allow students to take as many courses as they like each term for a flat fee.

Practice 4: Provide career services. Surveys of learners nationwide found that “[a]bout three-quarters of online students pursue further education to change career paths, earn a promotion, or keep their skills up to date” [23]. Common career services include job listings, connections to employers, internships, resume coaching, and career planning. Some institutions help students grow professional learning networks. For example, the Night Owl Network at WGU links students to the alumni community and provides opportunities for mentorship and other professional development.

Universities may also support students in developing new products and services. For example, ASU Online students have access to student support services, including entrepreneurship and innovation resources through Venture Devils.

Practice 5: Provide financial support. While financial considerations and cost of tuition are very important to students, data suggests that even scholarships as small as $500 can be influential [20]. And, while textbook costs are often relatively small compared to overall tuition, they are not covered by financial aid and students have expressed interest in OER-based courses. University of Maryland University College provides free, customized digital materials eliminating the expense of textbooks for most online courses. Resources include electronic textbooks as well as web sites, library resources, software, and interactive exercises.

Practice 6: Provide mental health services. Mental health services for online students is a growing concern. Online universities may partner with service providers to offer better services to online students. For example, WGU has partnered with WellConnect to provide students with personal counselors. Other consultation services available to WGU students through WellConnect include parenting as well as budget, debt, and legal consultation.

Practice 7: Help students be successful. Free courses can help students build life skills. For example, Colorado State University Online provides free MOOCs on topics including conflict resolution, positive parenting, relationships, and writing for graduate school. Offering free courses that are open to the public helps existing students without additional financial burden while also providing an entry point for potential new students.

This focus on preparing new students may utilize third party tools, such as Smarter Measure, to assess student readiness for online learning or employ customized courses designed to prepare students for college. Skills can include task management, time and workload management, and study skills. Online tutoring is expanding with services such as and Pearson’s Smart Thinking providing tutoring service to online students 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Some universities combine several supports into one program. For example, Penn State World Campus students participating in the Smart Track to Success program during their first two semesters of college receive $3,000 in financial assistance in addition to academic support, peer mentoring, and life skills building as part of a peer community.


The top reasons that students fail to persist in online courses are well documented and include factors like competing responsibilities such as work and family, financial challenges, inability to manage time and direct one’s own learning sufficiently in the isolated environment of online learning, and lack of progress in their education in terms of earning enough credits to carry them forward. We’ve discussed two very different models for online retention. In the first, more traditional model, the university and the students have clearly delineated and distinct areas of responsibility. A second model is suggested here as a more appropriate model for the current context of increased competition, adult online learner realities, and the 21st century university. This model is more integrated and suggests that retaining online learners requires supporting both curricular and student services areas. And, it argues for a model of shared responsibility between the students and the universities. We have also provided a number of examples of universities making important progress in taking a holistic approach to online retention. While online enrollments have consistently increased, recent reports suggest that future growth will likely be slower [20]. This means it is even more crucial that universities make strides in their efforts to retain online learners. Ultimately, the retention of online students is a moral obligation, particularly for the democratization of higher education. Indeed, it is a falsity for us to suggest that we are opening the university to those who otherwise are unable to attend post-secondary learning opportunities, only to maintain a narrow focus on residential students. Instead, we are called to consider these examples and many others which will sufficiently extend student services to the online learner to more properly assure online learners’ success. A first action step is to examine policies, practices, and philosophies to identify areas that may have previously been assumed to be out of the university's domain of responsibility and reconsider how you might better serve your online, adult learners in these areas.


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About the Authors

Dr. Andrea Gregg is the associate director for research for Penn State World Campus. In this role she connects research and practice in the context of learning design and online learning. She earned her Ph.D. in learning, design, and technology and her primary research focus is in understanding learners' experiences from their own perspectives. Previously, she worked for more than a decade in an instructional design capacity, both as a designer and as a manager of a design team. Prior to her work for the World Campus, she taught face-to-face academic credit courses in the communication arts and sciences department. She has published and presented in a variety of educational technology, online and distance learning, and adult learning outlets.

Penny Ralston-Berg has designed online courses since 1997. She is a senior research instructional designer for the Penn State World Campus and telecommutes from her home in Iowa. Her research interests include student perspectives of quality and how this impacts design practice; and the use of games and simulations in online instruction. She recently co-authored the book MindMeld: Micro-Collaboration between eLearning Designers and Instructor Experts. She has presented at various regional, national, and international conferences, serves on the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning (Madison, WI) planning committee, and is the current chair of the QM Instructional Designers Association.

Dr. Ali Carr-Chellman is the Dean of the College of Education, Health & Human Sciences at the University of Idaho. Dr. Carr-Chellman earned her doctorate at Indiana University, and her master's and bachelor's at Syracuse University. Her focus areas include diffusion of innovations, school change, systems theory, gaming to learn, distance education, cybercharter schools and research methods. She has more than 100 publications ranging from books to chapters to refereed journal articles. She has spoken widely around the issues associated with boys and educational gaminga, cybercharters and virtual academies and futuring for public school change. She has consulted with nonprofits and corporations as well as schools on a wide variety of topics and has continued to practice instructional design throughout her career. Hailing from Ohio, Dr. Carr-Chellman attended Ohio State University and focused on elementary education there. She taught kindergarten and third grade before returning to graduate school to focus on powerful ways to change schools. She has a well-known TED talk on the topic of boys and educational gaming.

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