Program Management

How to Maximize Student Retention, Success for Online Students

02/22/16   |  
Hannah Lemon

The decision to go back to school is not one to take lightly. It requires heavy planning, a significant time commitment, financial resources and a support system.

Support and encouragement are crucial throughout the student journey, aiding in retention and outcomes. In the "10 Keys to Online Program Financial Success" white paper, Cindy Wheatley and Drew Bagley dedicated two “keys” to student retention and success. 

Melissa Stec, director of student success at Keypath Education, elaborates on the following excerpts and shares why tracking student retention on a term-over-term basis and dedicating a team of student success advisors are especially important when working with online students and their unique challenges.

Wheatley and Bagley explain the benefits of measuring retention by term in this excerpt from "10 Keys to Online Program Financial Success":


This is the proportion of students enrolled after the drop deadline in one term who subsequently enroll (post-drop) in the immediate next term. (Students who graduate are excluded from the calculation; students who opt out for any reason are included.)

For graduate programs, you should expect term-over-term retention rates between 92- 98 percent. Undergraduate programs are typically 10 points lower, although retention rates vary by discipline, degree length and program complexity.

Retention is the most powerful lever that you have. Just a one-point drop in term-over-term retention results in a 5 percent drop in total course enrollments and on-time graduations. The effects of strong or poor retention compound over time; in many cases, the difference between a successful program and a struggling one lies in how well it retains qualified students.” (Bagley, Wheatley, 2015)

“Measuring term-over-term retention is essential in order to provide the right support and resources to increase a student’s likelihood for success each term,” Stec said. “Students have a higher likelihood for completion and graduation once they persist past the third term.”

When students take breaks, Stec added, they lose momentum and motivation. This can be a barrier for working adults, especially, who have jobs, families and other responsibilities to juggle along with their course load. 

“The sooner a student can get into a rhythm, the better the outcomes,” Stec said. “I tell students that the first two weeks of their degree will be the hardest because they have to build a new routine or determine how school fits into their existing one.”

Stec leads a team of student success advisors who work with students to help them engrain school into their lives and instill a plan for success.

Wheatley and Bagley highlight the importance of providing this support to online students:


For online students, retention isn’t just about academic progress. Working professionals are more likely to drop out of programs for nonacademic reasons than for academic ones, many of which could have been resolved without discontinuing their studies. To help your online students succeed and complete their education, it’s important to designate staff who proactively contact students to help them register, answer nonacademic questions and frequently just ‘check in.’

As a rule of thumb, you should plan to employ one nonacademic student advisor for every 300 students enrolled in a program (or across multiple small programs). Advisors are key to maximizing course completion and student retention. In addition, they bridge the gap between your online learners and campus administration. They should work in concert with – not in lieu of – academic advisors.” (Bagley, Wheatley, 2015)

Stec’s team members are highly trained based on students’ top barriers to success, including time management, technology challenges and personal situations. Students are assigned a success advisor based on degree and personal needs.

“We seek to understand why they’re going to school and what their support system is like,” Stec said. “We help them overcome their deterrents, make sure they have completed enrollment and orientation requirements, and check in throughout the semester – as often as they need.”

She mentioned that online students need to be held accountable. There is more flexibility in an online program, but there are still deadlines and course requirements. One of Stec’s college professors told her and her classmates that every time they sat in class, it cost $X, and that this is how much they will short themselves each time they miss class on top of the materials they missed.

“This really resonated with me,” she said. “It’s especially important to put participation into perspective for the online student. Remember, when engaging students from a retention or support standpoint, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Tailoring to the needs of students is critical in their success. We bring a face and voice to a virtual environment.”

For more information about successful online programs, download the "10 Keys to Financial Success in Online Programs." 

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