What Every Student Should Know About Online Student Retention

What Every Student Should Know About Online Student Retention

Online (especially for-profit) schools have received a great deal of attention lately because of issues related to degree program costs, student loan debt, and other financial-related matters. Another issue that has been brought up is the retention rate for students attending online schools. It is a subject that is often discussed from the schools’ point of view, but is also important for prospective students to consider. As an online student, you should understand how your actions affect retention rates and how the actions of schools (and online instructors) support your learning and achievement.

Student retention rate is simply a report of the number of students who successfully complete their degree program. Many reports indicate that the retention rate of students attending online (for-profit) schools is lower than those enrolled in traditional schools. Here are some recent reports:
•    Failure to graduate rate: one estimate of the failed retention rate for online students is in the range of 20 to 50 percent.
•    Actual graduation rate: another report indicates that the graduation rate of for-profit schools is 22 percent.
•    One of the larger for-profit schools has indicated their national completion rate is “34 percent for students seeking bachelor’s degrees.”
•    Overall retention: it is estimated that online (for-profit) schools have a retention rate that is 10 to 20 percent lower than traditional, face-to-face schools.

However, some reports point to a study by the Imagine America Foundation, conducted in 2010, as proof that online (for-profit) schools have a much stronger retention rate because the report indicated that “students who fall into at-risk categories attending career colleges have comparable and often higher retention and graduation rates than those at other institutions.” What’s interesting about this statement is that it refers to “career colleges” and not specifically online schools. The phrase “career colleges” is further defined as schools that meet the needs of non-traditional learners and working adults. This is similar to the purpose of for-profit (online) schools; however, a review of the history of career colleges as stated on the Imagine America Foundation website seems to indicate that these colleges are on-ground instead of online.

For-Profit Schools’ Perspective

For-profit schools gained popularity because they were designed to meet the needs of a market that was not readily served by traditional schools. The business model of for-profit schools was praised for providing education to working adults and also criticized for recruiting students with a low probability of graduating due to a lack of preparation for college-level courses. Online schools tapped into a market that allowed for rapid growth but resulted in low retention and graduation rates.

In 2011, some for-profit schools made plans to address the issue of retention. A Benchmarking Survey for Higher Education Marketers found “that 33 percent of for-profit schools plan to increase their spending on student retention solutions, and 42 percent plan to maintain their spending in this area.” The changes and enhancements that are being put into place are focused on the student experience, which includes advising and admissions practices, along with student support and on-demand tutoring services such as Smarthinking.

Other additions include orientation workshops to introduce students to the online classroom and help prepare them to work in this environment. Kaplan University, for example, initiated a program called the Kaplan Commitment, which allows students to attend class for an introductory period without any financial obligation if they choose to leave. During this time frame students must also meet the required academic standards to remain in the program.

Instructors’ Perspective

Your instructors also recognize that they have a direct impact on your overall classroom experience. They represent the university as a whole and this in turn determines how you develop perceptions about the school. Positive interactions with the classroom environment and your instructor often lead to positive perceptions about your school and impact your decision to continue.

When you make a decision to attend a particular school you expect that your specific personal and professional needs will be met. Ellen Smyth, an instructor with Austin Peay State University, has also found that “the secret to keeping students is engaging students,” because “students who are actively engaged and excited about school rarely leave.” What this means to you is that your instructors know they must do more than show up for class – they must create a productive classroom environment if you are to succeed as a student.

The Students’ Perspective

As an online student attending a for-profit school you may not have a choice when it comes to who facilitates your class; however, you will make a decision about your involvement in the class based upon the working relationship you develop with your instructor. If you have a dispute or disagreement, or if you do not receive meaningful feedback, these negative interactions may have a direct impact on the perception you have about the school overall. What I’ve found is that students will either persist, because of the commitment made to complete their degree program, or they will leave out of frustration and resentment.

There are other factors that help you maintain progress and encourage you to continue moving forward with your degree program. A study in 2002 by Wright State University found that positive retention factors include:
•    Enhanced comfort with technology
•    Online faculty that generate trust
•    Highly interactive experiences

This study determined that the primary reason why students decided not to continue with their studies was a sense of being disconnected from the class. The potential for online learning to feel distant is real, and I encourage students to develop a support system that includes participating in student groups and utilizing social media to further develop a connection to their academic community.

Retention Overall

From a broader perspective, the issue of retention is about numbers for online schools because it is directly related to student satisfaction, and the number of students who complete their classes offers an indication of the school’s overall academic effectiveness. However, student retention is not just about numbers, it is also about the interactions developed throughout a class. For instructors, retention is a matter of creating and sustaining a productive learning environment. For you as a student, it is about the choice you have to attend a school and your willingness to be involved and engaged in class.

The goal of current retention efforts is not just about keeping students in the program but also about improving educational outcomes, where you create knowledge and develop relevant skill sets while actively participating in the learning process. Overall, student retention is an issue of persistence because you are likely to face numerous challenges throughout your academic journey. When you feel supported and connected to the class and the school, you are likely to persist and complete your degree. 

Share your thoughts about retention and what it means to you @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./CORBIS

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