With nearly a third of all students now taking at least one course online, institutions are grappling with the reality that online is neither fringe or the sole domain of nontraditional students or for-profit colleges. The data bear this out: online enrollments continued to grow among non-profit and public institutions even during a period of contraction in the for-profit online space, according to the most recent study of the field by Babson Survey Research Group. The same study also found that the number of students studying on campus dropped by more than a million between 2012 and 2016.
What to make of all this?
It’s easy to see why the appeal of online learning is broadening: the flexibility allows learners to bend the traditional contours of breaks and semesters, enabling them to craft new — and, in some cases, faster — pathways to a degree. According to one recent study from ASU and the Boston Consulting Group, even as postsecondary enrollment continues a slight decline of 1-2 percent per year since 2014, the number of students taking some or all courses online grew at 5 percent annually during the same time period. But with flexibility comes complexity and new challenges for student affairs professionals charged with helping all learners navigate pitfalls and make their way toward successful outcomes.
Despite the growth in online populations, building student support infrastructure for these students is still a nascent field. How can institutions help remote students develop skills crucial to their success? How can student affairs evolve to meet the unique needs and characteristics of students who are spending less time on campus, and may never meet face-to-face with a faculty member or adviser? How can non-academic supports — from career development to tutoring, wellness to counseling — evolve to ensure that all students thrive?
Tapping into student motivation is a central principle for responding to these challenges in online learning. From the moment students investigate potential programs and enroll, long-term career and personal development goals must be at the center of their experience. This is critical to ensuring that students start their academic journey strong and persist to graduation. If a student has clear motivations beyond simply getting through a course, they have a much better chance of overcoming feelings of frustration, disappointment, and doubt when the going gets tough.
The challenge stems, in part, from the feelings of isolation that are common among students taking online courses, who lack the same degree of face-to-face interactions and connection to the campus community. Research suggests that isolation may contribute to higher dropout rates among online learners, and without the appropriate support, students are more likely to withdraw from a course. While it can be demanding to replicate the same level of human touch and support for online students that students attending on-ground would experience, it’s imperative that online programs aspire to that goal to combat this online “fade-out.”
At Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, online students receive coaching through the start of the first term to ensure that they have a successful start, part of a highly-successful campaign being waged across Indiana to re-engage adult students with some college no degree. This early support even helped a 63-year-old online student successfully re-enter higher education by mastering important skills like time management and overcoming feelings of isolation.
Still, even when these supports are available, students — especially first-generation students, adult learners and others unfamiliar with the in’s and out’s of campus bureaucracy — may have trouble locating and asking for them. For years, savvy institutions have re-organized student support services as a “one-stop shop” to make help easier to find. Increasingly, online programs are doing the same.
One of the world’s fastest growing universities, the University of Central Florida has recognized that online students needed quicker access to support resources. The university met this need by introducing a coaching program that provides students a “one-stop shop” for all the resources they need. Each year, new technologies are emerging to support online learners, with campuses using online counseling services that support the mental wellness of their online students and community.
Similarly, Penn State World Campus was able to quickly grow its online presence while maintaining the high-touch, high-frequency support available on campus. World Campus has dedicated student services staff to encourage engagement and self-governance, complete with mental health resources and dedicated case managers to help online students with issues both academic and personal.
It is important for campuses to acknowledge that online learners may have similar mental health or socio-emotional concerns that can be an impediment to their degree progress. In response, campuses have increasingly turned to virtual or telephone counseling support as another way to support their online students. Programs such as TAO Connect and Protocall are examples of low-cost commercial solutions that are helping support the growing online community.
The rising tide of student support may help lift all ships when it comes to increasing digital access to student services. With traditional-aged students expecting anytime and anywhere access to support and self-service resources, designing support for online students can benefit all students, whether they are studying in online or on-campus classroom formats.
Student affairs offices across the country are changing up long-standing approaches and launching new initiatives to better address the needs of today’s students. As online learning grows in prevalence and importance, institutions must do more than simply migrate traditional support services online. They must craft new and varied supports that deeply consider the unique challenges of an online education. Only then can we meet a growing number of students where they are: online.
Dr. Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA, the association representing more than 13,000 student affairs professionals. Dave Jarrat is senior vice president of strategic engagement and growth at InsideTrack, which provides student success coaching and mentoring.