Calling for Success: Online Retention Rates Get Boost From Personal Outreach

An ES Select Exclusive

Also from ES | January 16, 2013
Photo of the University of West Georgia. Photo Credit: Education Sector

By mid-term summer semester 2012, Gina Cannell was struggling with her online statistics course. After failing a few quizzes and an exam, she worried her C grade would get worse. She asked her professor for extra help, but couldn’t work through sample problems alone online. She needed live instruction. For two years, Cannell, a 43-year-old senior test engineer for Delta Air Lines, had excelled as an online student, but now she was facing failure or having to drop out. Her full-time job, family responsibilities, and a side business in interior design put on-campus classes—as well as tutoring—out of reach. Cannell wasn’t sure what to do. Then Julili Fowler rang.

“Your professor asked us to give you a call,” Fowler told her. “Are you at a computer? Let’s log in right now.” Fowler guided Cannell to an interactive messaging program, Whiteboard IM, which allows professors and tutors to work through statistics problems and other equations with students in real time. It was exactly what Cannell needed: She finished the semester with a B.

Fowler is a student success adviser with eCore, the state University System of Georgia’s online education portal. She makes these phone calls every day, contacting students like Cannell who have been identified as at-risk of dropping out. Fowler is one member of eCore’s 14-person student success team, which was started in 2007 to boost online retention rates, or the percentage of students who finish a course regardless of whether they pass or fail. (eCore, and some other online programs, define this as “completion.”) The thinking was first, get more students to stick with a course; then, help more students pass. For now, Fowler and her colleagues assist students with navigating the online system, locating assignments, and finding online resources for additional help. Their efforts seem to be working. In 2012, online retention rates for eCore courses across all eight campuses reached 83 percent, up 11 percentage points from six years before. At the University of West Georgia, where the student success team was launched six years ago, rates are an impressive 92 percent, up from 68 percent in 2007. That campus also saw online course retention rates inch ahead of those of face-to-face courses (92 percent to 91 percent, respectively) for the first time this past summer.

A decade ago, online courses like these best served nontraditional students like Cannell – those who are older than 22 and balancing work and families. But today, the appeal of online courses extends to students of all kinds, including traditional students cut out of high-demand classes. Cheaper and more flexible than traditional courses, online courses allow students to work when they want and how they want—and in some cases, as quickly as they want. For the past nine years, online enrollments have grown faster than overall enrollment throughout higher education, and by 2011, the number of college students taking at least one online course surpassed 6.7 million. And with increasing pressure from President Obama and many others—business leaders, taxpayers, policymakers—to produce a more educated and skilled workforce by 2020, universities are looking to online course work to help reach that goal. Officials in the California State University system will launch an entirely separate online university in 2013, ultimately increasing enrollment by 250,000 students.

But the abundance of online course offerings won’t lead to desired outcomes if students don’t complete their classes. Generally, the retention rates for online courses are believed to be 10 to 20 percent lower than the retention rates for their face-to-face counterparts. A 2011 study of Washington’s community and technical colleges found course retention rates among online students to be 8 percentage points lower than that of students in traditional environments. The study also found that college freshmen who enrolled in an online course during their first term were more likely to drop out of college. The distance from—and lack of connection to—campus and its professors can be an inhibitor for the online student. Beyond that, technical difficulties, personal obligations, and lack of motivation can easily derail online learning. eCore’s student success team, and programs like it, recognize these pitfalls and work to remedy them. ...Read More