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At-risk online learners
reducing barriers to success

By JoAnn T. Funk / August 2005

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At-risk adult learners—that is, learners who are not expected to succeed—are more likely to take online courses, but they're also more likely to drop out. The barriers that confront at-risk adult learners when they take their first online course can cause early attrition. If some or all of these barriers can be removed, then learners are more likely to succeed in their first course and go on to take others. An online program that works to remove such barriers can benefit through lower attrition. To create this win-win situation, we examine why these learners are at-risk, the barriers they face, and how the differences between face-to-face and online education impact them.

Distance education institutions need to realize what makes learners at-risk in order to accommodate them. According to the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL), "a number of variables related to a student's family or personal background appears to contribute to increasing the risk of failure in school" (2003, p. 1). Some of the most frequently-cited factors that contribute to being at-risk are "single head of household, low socioeconomic status, minority group status, limited English proficiency, low educational attainment of parents, disabilities, psychosocial factors, and gender" (SEDL, 2003, p.1). Additionally, at-risk learners share certain characteristics: They are "sensitive to failure, intimidated by faculty, unfamiliar with support systems," have "undeveloped work ethic, little exposure to smarter students," and they may be "immature" (Mayberry, 2003, p. 4-5). Learning styles can have an impact as well. Diaz and Carnal (1999) found that most online students are independent style learners, in contrast to classroom learners, who are more dependent and collaborative. It is recommended that instructors conduct a learning-style inventory because "knowledge of student learning preferences can aid faculty in class preparation, designing class delivery methods, choosing appropriate technologies, and developing sensitivity to differing student learning preferences within the distance education environment" (Diaz & Carnal, 1999, p. 2). Wheeler, Miller, Halff, H. M.; Fernandez, Halff, L.A.;Gibson, & Meyer (1999) assert that "at-risk students have the potential to succeed if their needs are recognized and addressed" (p. 2).

Adult learners are at-risk first because they are adults who have life circumstances that can prevent success. They may or may not have children who place demands on their time, financial difficulties now that they are on their own, and may be working full- or part-time while furthering their education. Jersey (2004) purports "non-traditional students often have unique challenges coming back or starting school again after many years" (p.2). Being an adult carries much stress of everyday life. However, if online institutions assist them in obtaining an education, then they may be "able to succeed despite their disadvantages and become adults with higher self-esteem and better qualifications for the workforce" (Wheeler, et al., 1999, p. 2).

Other characteristics of being at-risk are those who are "academically disadvantaged, disabled, and [have] low socioeconomic status" (Jones & Watson, 1990, p. 2). Young adults who are nontraditional (at-risk) may have trouble arranging for reliable childcare and getting a flexible work schedule that will allow them to support themselves and have some time to study. Not having any child care is not usually a predicament for online learners, although they may need someone to care for their children at home while they study. Mayberry (2003) contends that an "early alert" system is the key to preventing an at-risk online learner from withdrawing and suggests "giving the student a next steps recommendation" and helping the "student develop an improvement plan" (p. 8-9).

In a report of a study about online education in Education Daily by Alana Keynes (2002), adult students who have children and who attend two-year colleges are more likely to take distance education classes. It is obvious from profile studies like this one that those young adults who work and/or have children are more likely to require a more flexible approach to higher education. These young, single parents who are struggling to find childcare, are also unwavering in their motivation to provide a better life for their children through higher education. If the adult learners put off seeking higher education, perhaps due to teenage pregnancy and parenthood, then they may not be prepared academically either. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) insists that there is a mandate to "design effective programs and services to help nontraditional students reach their degree goals" (NCES, Special Analysis, 2002, p. 1). In addition, the adult learner may not have any other adult in their family who has gone to college. Therefore they are at-risk for not knowing how to fill out an application, get financial aid, or know how to organize their lives.

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) tells us in a Special Analysis 2002 report that "39 percent of all postsecondary students were 25 years or older in 1999, compared with 28 percent in 1970" (p. 1). Also reported is that "in 1999-2000, eight percent of all undergraduates participated in distance education... and among those who participated, 29 percent were enrolled in programs available entirely through distance education. Nontraditional students were more likely than traditional students... to participate in distance education and to be in programs available entirely through distance education" (NCES, Special Analysis 2002, Nontraditional Undergraduates, p. 1).

These statistics strongly suggest that online universities must prepare to greet these at-risk adult online learners with programs of study to suit their needs. Palloff and Pratt (2003) assert that "the virtual student needs all the services that are provided to the residential student" and "close attention must be paid to the additional needs and issues that working at a distance creates" (p. 60). Since attrition is a primary concern for our colleges and universities, society must address this very important issue with efforts to stem the tide of dropout rates, especially of our increasing enrollments of high-risk students. Palloff and Pratt (1999) relate that "many institutions have entered the distance learning arena because it makes economic sense for them" (p. 164). Better retention would assist online universities in obtaining more tuition income. It is like a rolling snowball that increases society's woes when these at-risk adult learners dropout and then consequently are not prepared for the future labor market.

Defining At-risk

Any student who may not graduate or might give up and drop out is at-risk. The National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students (2002) in the United States Department of Education states that the characteristics of at-risk students fall into five categories:

  • Family Life
  • Health/Nutrition
  • Community Conditions
  • Social Status
  • School Influence

In the Family Life category, characteristics include those who are being raised by a single parent, are single parents themselves, or are being raised in an abusive environment. Single parent families are usually more likely to be living in poverty. Families are often fragmented in today's urban high crime areas. Sometimes Daddy is in jail and/or Mommy is an alcoholic. Some families in today's society have even thrown their own children out of the house during those tumultuous teen years, and now they may be homeless with no family-support structure.

The Health/Nutrition category means the learner has illnesses that interfere with their performance. For example, someone who is in constant pain may find it very difficult to concentrate. Those who live in poverty cannot afford proper healthcare. Mental illness like depression can put a student at-risk. "Teens suffering from these disorders (anxiety) who do quit school often end up in menial, dead-end jobs that are far below their intellectual potential" (Anxiety Disorders May Force Students to Drop Out, 1995, p. 1). According to a report by the NCES (2002), 17 percent of those undergraduates who are disabled are suffering from mental illness. Being addicted to drugs or alcohol obviously places someone at-risk, also. "Twenty-three percent of dropouts admit to being addicted to a drug or substance" (Hayslett, 1996, p. 2). Some of the community conditions which contribute to the lack of success are living in dangerous inner-city areas, not getting support from parents and peers in a community lacking individuals who have sought higher education, and feelings a lack of expectations to go to college. Pogrow (1990) tells us that a typical working parent averages just 30 seconds of conversation with his child and that "there is almost no conversation in the home lives of most at-risk children" (p. 10). Many people in our world do not even have the opportunity to acquire an education due to discrimination or poverty or isolation. Access to technology needs "to be considered when designing an online course" (Palloff & Pratt, 2003, p. 45). It is all a mad cycle of if you do not feed me or educate me, then I cannot prosper, much less participate in the world community.

Being a member of an ethnic minority is a social status factor. Perhaps no family member has ever attended college and no one has shown the student how to enroll and seek financial aid. Being a member of an ethnic minority makes one a member of a group that has a certain culture. Culture is formed by attitudes learned in our childhoods, and later internalized as adults. Remember these characteristics of culture: learned, logical, self-identity, visible and invisible, and dynamic.

We learn about our culture because it is passed down from generation to generation. It is logical because the behaviors exhibited by a culture merely reinforce their values and beliefs. It is important to acknowledge this logic in order to learn to accept the differences from one's own culture. Culture is the basis for our self-identities in that we make choices about education, career, and our life partners due to our cultural values. Also, there may be an English-as-a-second-language problem that prohibits success for the young adult. If one has recently immigrated to another country, it takes time to study and learn the language. These limited English proficiency students are at-risk because one must have a command of language in order to seek higher education.

The School Influence category refers to the influence placed on youth by their secondary schools as they approach post-secondary education. Discrimination and/or differential treatment by instructors who sometimes have an attitude of aversion towards high risk, low income, and minority students can lead to low self-esteem and eventually, attrition. They drop out with the feeling that they are not welcome and society does not have high expectations for their abilities. Some schools use inappropriate instructional methods like competitiveness, ability grouping, and simply having hostile environments where making fun of others is ignored and accepted. Some students receive little or no academic or personal assistance. This lack of school support causes many to never consider higher education.

The literature also suggests that all first-year students in an online university are at-risk until they gain the support (financially and emotionally), the skills necessary to succeed, and begin to believe in themselves. So, just embarking upon higher education places some at-risk until they climb the ladder of skill sets needed to succeed. This is where school influence at the college level has a further negative effect.

Characteristics of At-risk Learners

First of all, at-risk learners do not experience success in school, whether that be secondary, postsecondary, face-to-face, or online. An Eric Digest (1987) article about at-risk students states that "nationally over 25 percent of the potential high school graduates drop out before graduation" (Donnelly, p. 1). That statistic jumps to 40 percent in some major cities. We recognize these potential dropouts by their low academic achievement, indeed; consequently, they show signs of low self-esteem. Typically they are from the lowest socioeconomic stratus, having low income and perhaps being from a minority culture.

Another characteristic of at-risk learners is their external locus of control. This learner normally receives intermittent and inconsistent reinforcement for personal accomplishments. They tend to demonstrate lower degrees of persistence and be more likely to dropout. Dr. Angie Parker (2003) performed a single group pretest-posttest design study to try and predict locus of control with Rotter's I-E Locus of Control Scale. She concluded that those students with external locus may be "better suited to the traditional format of coursework" (p. 6).

At-risk learners tend to not participate in activities at the high school level and thusly do not identify with the school. "Family problems, drug addictions, pregnancies, and other problems prevent them from participating successfully in school. As they experience failure and fall behind their peers, school becomes a negative environment that reinforces their negative self-esteem" (Donnelly, p. 1). Other characteristics consist of limited language proficiency, poverty, race, geographic location, or economic disadvantage.

Community forces can influence young adults to join gangs, do drugs, and create an atmosphere of fear due to drive-by shootings, rape and gang rape, bullying, beatings, and robbery. Is there help and support from all aspects of the community? Do the religious leaders offer programs? Do the schools simply turn the youth out onto the streets at the end of the day, or do the politicians plan and provide interventions to help encourage higher education? If one is dealing with all the fearful factors of gangs, getting beat up or sexually assaulted, then the anxiety can be the main focus and not education.

Rarely do researchers of the characteristics of at-risk learners have a real life opportunity to enter an inner-city secondary school and observe exactly what these young adults face everyday. The approach to the building may be protected from its surrounding dangerous community neighborhood by a tall chain-link fence with barbed wire on top. The faculty parking lot may be separately enclosed in its own fence in order to shield staff from student harm. There will probably be guards placed around the campus, including the main office. Chaos reigns in cafeterias with students perched on tables and on top of lockers, food flying and lying on the floor, and no supervision. (This author made these observations in an inner-city school in West Contra Costa County, CA, while working in a career exploration program with the Boy Scouts of America, 2000-2002).

Comparing and Contrasting Face-to-Face with Online Education

As a result of higher education embracing some dramatic changes in the use of technology, researchers are comparing the platform delivery systems of face-to-face (FTF) versus online education. For some these changes represent a "major breakthrough in teaching and learning because it facilitates the exchange of information and expertise while providing opportunities for learners in distant or disadvantaged locations" (Aragon, Johnson, & Shaik, 2001, p. 1). Even though it is gaining in popularity, some educators feel that online learning devalues education, lacks the human contact, and could prohibit access to those without computers and the Internet.

Some research is beginning to show the influence of learning styles on whether a learner succeeds either in a FTF or online environment. In a study by Aragon et al. (2001), the learners showed "no significant differences in the social and environmental (motivation maintenance) preferences between the students of the two different delivery formats" (p. 10). However, there was difference in the cognitive processing habits showing that the online learners are more reflective compared to their face-to-face counterparts. On the other hand, the face-to-face students used more active experimentation or learning by doing. To be successful, both FTF and online learners needed to be motivated and be engaged in tasks and course participation. "While motivation tends to be an internally driven characteristic, it is also known that external factors such as the teacher, course design, and learning activities can and will influence motivation within the context of learning" (Aragon et al., 2001, p.14).

In another study comparing student satisfaction in face-to-face and distance education, the researchers found that attitudes about the delivery mode played a part in satisfaction (Allen, Bourhis, Burrell, and Mabry (2002). Some students were reluctant to value the online format because of unfamiliarity with technology and fear of breakdowns. Not only are they apprehensive about the online class design format, but also the fact that they will be bound by a communication over the Internet with no face-to-face contact. Some joke about not being able to talk without their hands and others want to see the looks on classmates' faces.

On the other hand, some adult learners revel in the fact that they won't have to travel to a campus and pay parking fees. The other great comparison is that online classmates do not need immediate responses. One can reflect and reply after thinking about whatever the issue is that is being discussed. Asynchronous discussions flex to fit anyone's schedule of whenever they have time to respond. The results of this study about student satisfaction comparing distance education with traditional classrooms in higher education by Allen, Bourhis, Burrell, and Mabry (2002), showed that there was a "slightly higher level of satisfaction with live course setting than distance education formats" (p. 89). These researchers felt that these results indicated that this was a desirable outcome. They believed the replacement of face-to-face with online learning "should demonstrate little decline in student satisfaction in the quality of the educational process" (Allen et al., 2002, p. 91). However, one should consider if the learners were equally satisfied but did not learn the same amount, and how does one define success?

Early in the process of jumping on the bandwagon of online education, many learned educators alleged that there would be an inferior quality in comparison the face-to-face classroom education. In a survey conducted by Sloan (2003), they discovered that now we expect "online offerings to get better relative to the FTF option" (p. 8). The evidence includes:

  • A majority of academic leaders (57 percent) already believe that the learning outcomes for online education are equal or superior to those of face-to-face instruction.
  • Even more compelling, nearly one-third of these same academic leaders expect that learning outcomes for online education will be superior to face-to-face instruction in three years, and nearly three-quarters of them expect learning outcomes for online education to be equal to or better than face-to-face instruction.
  • Every grouping of institutions expects the same relative improvement in the learning outcomes of online compared to face-to-face instruction over the next three years. This holds true both for institutions that offer online education and those that do not. (Sloan-C Organization, 2002-3, p. 8-9)

According to a study regarding learning styles of learners in FTF and online classes in a community college, Diaz and Cartnal (1999) felt that simply to build awareness about the fact that we all learn differently would aid professors in the design of their classroom (real or virtual) activities. This study used the Grasha-Reichmann Student Learning Style Scales (GRSLSS) to assess student learning style preferences. The GRSLSS promotes understanding of learning styles that have six categories: independent students, dependent learners, competitive students, collaborative learners, avoidant learners, and participant learners. It was discovered that the distance learners had higher scores in the independent style scale. Use correlation coefficients of combinations of learning styles, Diaz and Cartnal (1999) found that people who were more independent also were inclined to be less collaborative and dependent within the online group. In the traditional classroom, students who were collaborative also tended to be competitive and participatory.

The study concluded that it is advantageous to strengthen lesser-preferred learning styles and "expand the scope of their learning, become more versatile learners, and adapt to the requisites of the real world" (Diaz & Cartnal, 1999, p. 6). In addition, "If optimal learning is dependent on learning styles, and these styles vary between online and traditional students, then teachers should consider altering their instructional methods as one means of preventing drops" (Diaz, 2002, p. 1). So, in the future educators and instructional designers should develop a "sensitivity to differing student learning preferences" (Diaz & Cartnal, 1999, p. 8).

Barriers for Learners

There are many diverse barriers for the at-risk learner. Being labeled at-risk often begins earlier in the young adult's life. The most visible learners at-risk are those with disabilities. In the handbook for California Community Colleges titled Distance Education: Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities (1999) authored by a task force of eleven experts, lay out a 73-page roadmap for compliance with state and federal laws concerning access for disabled students.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 speaks of the important role of computers connected to the Internet, forcefully stating that the accommodation should be timely in its delivery and provided in a manner appropriate to the abilities of the individual with the disability. We are cautioned to always keep the design of an online classroom as simple as possible, to "develop templates that increase accessibility and are easy to modify, [and] test your site with a variety of students with disabilities" (Casey, 1999, p. 4). For those that cannot use a mouse, one must create keyboard shortcuts. The designer should also use a technique known as front-loading, which means putting the main idea at the front of each sentence or paragraph. This helps those that use screen readers. (Casey, 1999). Remember that technology is just a tool, "a vehicle to meet learning objectives" (Palloff & Pratt, 2001, p.62). Whether that means voice-enabled technology or printed material in Braille versions for those with visual impairments, or interpreters for the hearing impaired, the institution of public education has a duty to solve barriers to information access.

Within the United States Department of Education, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is "responsible for ensuring that all educational institutions comply with the requirements of all federal civil rights laws" (Distance Education: Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities, 1999, p. 6). They recommend that colleges build in design features at the time of making a new online course so that persons with disabilities can access the course immediately after its creation through perhaps closed captioning, descriptive narration, or assistive computer technology. The design of the course must equal the level of communication for those with or without disabilities. An example of this would be a document in an online course that is available using Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF). These are difficult for the visually impaired to use with a screen reader and so an alternate should be available in HTML format. A comprehensive set of guidelines for meeting Web access needs for disabled learners has been produced by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) as a working group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). (Distance Education: Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities, 1999, p. 21). The WAI suggests guidelines, but it is up to the Web designer as to how to implement them. The home page is the most critical for accessibility rules. It should be easy to understand and to navigate to the remainder of the Web site pages. Some examples of their guidelines are to allow the user to control the amount of time it takes them to read or interact, make all functions able to be performed with the keyboard or keyboard interface devices, and help users avoid mistakes and to correct them.

Other states that have developed guidelines have made their handbooks available online. One more of these is A Handbook on Educational Success by Virginia Commonwealth University. They define a reasonable accommodation as any changes that allow students to perform in a program and benefit from all educational activities. They advise their faculty to be sensitive to the needs of disabled students without giving undo attention to how courageous they are for overcoming obstacles and to remember that some disabilities are hidden from sight. They are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect and in the case of our college learners, as adults.

An article by George D. Edmunds, J.D. (2003) states that many times online disabled learners experience barriers, the stakeholders are unaware and unfamiliar with the methods of solving these problems, and this can diminish the quality of the learning experience. Edmunds tells us that students with disabilities like online education as much as "normal" students. In 2000 the NCES reported that 27.6 percent of surveyed students with disabilities were more satisfied with distance education than face-to-face. Even though these learners may use assistive technology, this does not remove all of the barriers. Many times the courses are not designed for different types of assistive technology, nor the many different disabilities.

Instructors with disabilities can also benefit from access to online education. For example, "Dr. Denise Lance, an online instructor with cerebral palsy, reports that accessible online education allows her to keep her disability hidden if she chooses" (Edmunds, 2003, p. 4). No one can judge her by her wheelchair or how she looks. Her brain is equal or superior to yours and mine.

Tools to Help

Some accommodations are very simple. For example, avoid flickering items on your Web site that can trigger seizures for people with photosensitive seizure disorders, like epilepsy. Edmunds (2003) also provides a table of tools to make Web sites accessible. Some direct the instructional designer to free software that one can download. To provide an alternative for a multimedia presentation, one can use the MAGpie Media Access Generator developed by the National Center for Accessible Media which provides captions for the multimedia files. A second example is for identifying row and column headers for data tables, we can use the Bobby validator developed by Watchfire to identify problems and then check manually (Edmunds, 2003). Bobby is a validation tool used by Web designers to determine access issues. As recently as 2002, a survey using Bobby found that only 23 percent of the Web pages examined passed and most of the errors were images without text explaining what they were for those who cannot see them. (Edmunds, 2003).

Some tools are logical for the instructor to use like providing adequate time and interaction for the disabled student's success. In the case of deaf students, colleges reportedly only graduate five for every 16 admitted, a retention rate of only 31 percent. In contrast, there is a 41 percent retention rate among hearing students in two-year colleges and 70 percent in four-year colleges. (Report on Basic Academic Preparation, 1997, p. 2). So, one tool that can easily be used by educators of disabled students is to maintain high expectations and convey the strong message that they are worthy and can succeed.

Access Issues

Some online learners are at a disadvantage because they cannot afford a computer or a modem to get online. Some live in very rural areas and lack the technology necessary to use distance education. A Southwest Educational Development Laboratory Web site speaks of the failure risks for rural schoolchildren. The trend for at-risk rural youth also includes other risk factors like poverty, single parent households, and/or belonging to a minority. If one factor places you at-risk, then two or more increase your risk of failure in school. "Nearly two-fifths of all young rural children with single mothers live on family incomes of less than half the poverty level" (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory: Background Characteristics, 2003, p. 4). In an article by Clark (2001) entitled Conquering the Digital Divide, one rural community action agency in Georgia said, "Information technology is the most important issue facing community action agencies and the clients they serve" (p. 5).

Also, a number of learners may be migrants who frequently change domiciles and never know if they will have access in the future. Let us not forget the homeless who may or may not have access to public Web-connected computers. Our nation has millions of recent immigrants who may be living in poverty, or lack English proficiency. Has anyone ever considered the young adult who is living in an abusive situation and is not allowed access by the person who controls their lives?

The many young females who have gotten pregnant in their teens and now want access to online education often do not even have a home computer. Consider this real life illustration of what may happen to a teen that gets pregnant, becomes a parent, and may also have problems with alcohol or drugs: Talking to her 3-year-old daughter through a glass divider at the Vermillion County Juvenile Detention Center, 17-year-old Jessica Barfell realized her future could be spent in an adult prison with nothing but time to think about the education she walked away from. That experience along with some harsh words and an ultimatum from a juvenile judge, motivated the Westville middle school dropout to enter GED classes last fall at Danville Area Community College. "There's so much life I need and want to accomplish," said Barfell at the time, describing her enthusiasm for learning and her renewed self-confidence. But three weeks into the program, Barfell drifted back to her old habits. (Moss, 2003, p. 1).

The United States Access Board is a government agency that deals with disability access issues. It has an informative Web site that features tutorials on how to design for accessibility, a newsletter, and the aspects of the disability laws. A recent newsletter called Access Currents (March/April 2004) includes an article about trying for global standardization in order to try to provide worldwide standards for the "Information Age."

Microsoft's Web site has a section called Accessibility: Technology for Everyone. The company states that as "an industry leader," it wants "to focus [its] efforts on the opportunities ahead" and to "strive to build products that are accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities" (p. 1). Another article entitled, Aging Workplace and Accessible Technology (2004), tells of Microsoft's preparation for the coming demographic shift in the workplace: "Currently more than 69 million American workers are age 40 and older, 48 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Working age computer users in the US between the ages of 18 and 64 (more than 74 million Americans) could benefit from accessible technology because of mild to severe vision impairment, hearing, dexterity, speech and cognitive difficulties that interfere with their ability to perform routine tasks-including their use of computers." This is "redefining the US workforce" (Aging Workforce and Accessible Technology, 2004, p. 1-3).

Microsoft feels that businesses will want to have assistive technology to be able to recruit and retain these older workers. An example of this is a program called "StickyKeys," which enables the computer user to give multiple key commands (like CTRL+ALT+DEL) with one keystroke. Those who live in poverty also have many access issues. Low income housing is typically old and not wired for the information age, but some urban areas are adding connections to the Internet and donated computers to this housing. This will enable people to get trained and/or attend college in low income housing. If society wants to improve the economy and the quality of life for the poor, we must combat this issue of access for all to the Internet.

As Thomas E. Cyrs says so well in his book Teaching and Learning at a Distance (1997), "the real challenge for the future will be redefining access to mean universal access for both faculty and students to the information technology that will make higher education meaningful. Broadly defined, information technology will include not only ownership (possession) of the necessary hardware and software but also training on demand in its use and application as well as help desk support" (p. 11).


Now that we have explored the definitions of what at-risk entails, compared and contrasted online versus face-to-face at-risk learners, discussed disability guidelines and access issues, we must suggest preventive measures that might increase our retention of these learners. "Federal financial support for education fell 11 percent between 1980 and 1987, while numbers of disadvantaged students grew nationwide by 20 percent. Many more students are currently at-risk than ever before, while educational standards are being raised nationwide" (At-risk Students, 1987, p. 3). In addition, since that article was published, the No Child Left Behind federal law has been passed and educators are struggling to comply. There is much pressure to help all young adults achieve higher education.

Our nation's community colleges and their efforts to add online education could be a tool to improve and expand education. There are more than 1,100 US community colleges, and according to Milliron and Prentice (2004) in an article about them, community colleges are reaching out with anytime, anyplace tools. "In today's higher education world, asynchronous learning is the power tool" (Milliron & Prentice, 2004, p. 2). The access is very local and the courses are usually affordable. The role of community colleges as a partial solution to the challenge of higher education access is emerging as a way to bring "learning to life in new and exciting ways" (Milliron & Prentice, 2004, p. 2).

An article by Carol Twigg, executive director of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, USA, entitled Using Asynchronous Learning in Redesign: Reaching and Retaining the At-Risk Student (2004), explains a program that was begun in 1999 and focused on redesigning first year introductory classes at 30 institutions. Some of the common characteristics that emerged were: whole course design by faculty, active learning (learner-centered), computer-based learning resources, mastery learning, on-demand help, and alternative staffing. They found the redesign techniques were particularly effective with minority students. For example: With an undergraduate minority student population 46.4 percent, the University of New Mexico reduced its drop-failure-withdrawal rate from 42 percent to 18 percent in Introductory Psychology. At the University of Idaho, success rates in Intermediate Algebra for Hispanic students who are part of the College Assistance Migrant Program increased from 70 percent to 80 percent. (Twigg, 2004, p. 5). The results were less cost, more flexible learning schedules, a greater sense of community, and a more effective interventions and support for at-risk students.

Toward Resiliency: At-Risk Students Who Make It to College, by Horn and Chen, and MPR Associates, Inc. (1998) for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, was a longitudinal study to explore why certain at-risk students enroll in postsecondary education. They identified five risk factors: lowest socioeconomic quartile, single parent family, older sibling dropped out of high school, changed schools two or more times, got grades of C or lower between grades six and eight, and/or repeated an earlier grade. The researchers investigated the engagement behaviors that led to the at-risk students being more likely to go on to college. They were items like participating in extracurricular activities, having good attendance, and engagement with their parents.

Parents who were involved with their children's education would ask about their courses, their plans for the future, plans for taking college entrance exams, and applying for colleges. Peer engagement was an important support factor also. Did their friends feel academic performance was important?

Lastly, college preparatory activities were an indicator of students' abilities to be resilient and attend college. Did they get help finding out about financial aid, how to fill out a college application, and did they participate in any outreach programs? The results were that all of these factors had some effect. The students who were more resilient had especially strong parent and peer support. Those who reported that their peers "considered learning activities highly important had about 70 percent higher odds of enrolling in a four-year college" (Horn & Chen, MPR Associates, Inc., 1998, p. 16).

Mentoring is a very successful type of intervention in online education for the adult learner. Stein and Glazer (2003) wrote an interesting article about Mentoring the Adult Learner on Academic Midlife at a Distance Education University. A mentor is one who collaborates with a learner in helping to achieve clearly defined learning goals. Because these adult learners are typically under so much stress from career, family, and their own educational goals, it is essential to help them feel a part of the online community. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2003) states that in 2002, some 3.2 million 18-to-24 year olds were considered to be dropouts. In an article about why online learners dropout (2001), the author states that interactivity between students and instructors is fundamental to build that sense of community. "One instructor of an introductory computer class says his completion rates jumped from 62 to 90 percent when he switched to a more interactive Internet program that allowed him to hold regular chats and organize emails messages more efficiently" (p. 4).

The learners often have doubts about their abilities and motivation to complete their degrees. They wonder if they have the tenacity. Online universities must provide support services online. Communications between students and faculty must be empathetic and compassionate, while providing advice and support and focusing on clear objectives and encouraging completion of each task. The researchers noted some themes emerged from responses to questions like responsiveness to learner inquiries, reassurance to learners that they are capable of completion, and respect for adult life situations. Learners become more persistent when there is a meaningful and personal relationship between mentor and mentee.

Reflections and Discussion

When John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden (1952) was first published, the world was very different than today. In the early 1900s schools were the center of the social life in every community. "In the country the repository of art and science was the school, and the schoolteacher shielded and carried the torch of learning and beauty. The schoolhouse was the meeting place for music, for debate. The polls were set in the schoolhouse for elections. Social life, whether it was the crowning of the May queen, the eulogy to a dead president, or an all-night dance, could be held nowhere else. And the teacher was not only an intellectual paragon and social leader, but also the matrimonial catch of the countryside" (p. 146). Today the teachers are no longer considered all knowing and wise, communities are not so close-knit and caring, and rural schools are a dying dinosaur as the Information Age unfolds.

For those in the field of education, it is time for a major paradigm shift. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Stephen Covey says that all major breakthroughs in the field of science are due to paradigm shifts. A light needs to go on inside the heads of all education stakeholders. If a paradigm shift is a new way of thinking, then let us all get on board the principle paradigm shift of potential. All learners, whether they are labeled as at-risk or not, have the potential to succeed in higher education; and so we owe it to them to do all we can to reduce the barriers, provide access, and empower them to reach their full potential.

We all want our children to grow up as responsible citizens. Society suffers from despair and fear about today's youth. We do not know how this next generation may turn out. The Carnegie Council found after a ten-year research effort that these ten conditions must be met for young adults to grow up to be healthy adults:

  • Develop sustained, caring relationships with adults.
  • Receive guidance in facing serious challenges.
  • Become a valued member of a constructive peer group.
  • Feel a sense of worth as a person.
  • Become socially competent.
  • Know how to use support systems.
  • Achieve a reliable basis for making informed choices.
  • Participate in the constructive expression of curiosity and exploration.
  • Believe in a promising future with real opportunities.
  • Find ways of being useful to others. (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1998, p. 49)

Some of these conditions for youth development look like the qualities of a good adult mentor who is helping an adult learner online in their college studies, like the first two bullets above. If an at-risk learner can believe in a promising future with real opportunities, then society and our economy will benefit. The hope is that they will learn how to learn, develop a yearning for learning, and continually reach out and take advantage of new opportunities to learn new skills. The youth of today must understand that they will likely change their careers and professions several times over the course of their lives. We have to concern ourselves with globalization of the economy, evolving images of families, limited access to wealth and education, in addition to lack of access to technology by those living in poverty. When education tries to adapt to a rapidly shifting job market, those changes often cannot happen fast enough. "Over 1.6 million students took at least one online course during fall 2002 and over one-third of these students (578,000) took all of their courses online" (Sloan-C Resources, 2003, p. 4). Society, universities, and educators are obligated to try and keep up with these fast-moving trends.

The locked-up potential of those attempting to seek higher education should be one very imperative focal point of future research. "At-risk students have tremendous level of intellectual and academic potential" (Pogrow, 1990, p. 7). Professor Pogrow also felt that we "should focus on encouraging new types of interventions and keeping track of their effectiveness"(p. 28). Fine-tuning online education means making it available to all who need and want it. We should consider that helping students gain access to learning through technology means striving for a digital democracy. If we accomplish this goal, learners will learn how to think critically, solve problems, make decisions, and become more globally aware and involved in communities. This could lead to learning freedom. It might open more doors to people who in the past have been at-risk and unsupported. Those of us in education could "help more people launch their own learning journeys" (Milliron & Prentice, 2004, p. 7). With the involvement of community, fostering resilience, practicing e-mentoring, and expressing belief in their futures, we may be able to create a future where instead of calling students at-risk, we may label them as at-promise instead.


In adult online higher education, attrition is a costly problem. Not only does the adult dropout earn hundreds of thousands less in wages over his/her lifetime, but also society may end up supporting him/her through welfare aid. Online universities are focusing on improving retention. The learners that dropout were perhaps at-risk to do so.

An online learner has characteristic risk factors like the life stresses we all experience as an adult, and maybe having no emotional support from school, family, nor community. Having a disability, mental or physical, places one at-risk. Poverty can play a big role by preventing access to hardware, software, and the Internet; much less the cost of tuition and books. The most damaging factor may be the feelings of anxiety, no self-worth, and no one in their world declaring expectations of higher education.

The very large differences between traditional face-to-face and distance education could help or hinder adult learners. A single parent would not have to pay hundreds of dollars for childcare, nor need transportation to get to a campus s/he learned online. However, they might be hindered by lack of technology capabilities, lack of literacy or college skills preparation, or no social support. The at-risk adult probably has never experienced learner-centered, learn by doing, and apply this knowledge to your life type of education. Learning styles are a factor that can place a student at-risk. These items can lead to feelings of unworthiness.

The barriers for the disabled learner must be removed from online education as mandated by law. Nonetheless, we still need more progress to achieve total learner satisfaction. We have to reach out to them, accommodate their needs, and continue to check on their satisfaction with how we are doing. Society needs to start early and set up school, parental, and community support systems. We must prevent barriers and try to intervene in order to prevent attrition of the at-risk adult online learner.

Education is a process, and as such can be constantly improved. It involves internal and external resources and influences. Just one or more of these factors can cause a learner to drop out. If this happens, then we have failed to help individuals achieve their full potential. However, if we intervene in some manner by creating a sense of community, facilitating financial aid, validating their shared ideas, and being sensitive to adult life problems; then we are empowering them to learn, live, and serve.


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