February 9th, 2015

Online Student Retention Requires a Collaborative Approach


Institutions of higher education are increasingly using online courses and fully-online programs as tools to increase enrollment. There are many issues surrounding the subject of online education as an enrollment strategy. For instance, attrition rates are higher in online courses and online programs than in the face-to-face environment (Carr, 2000; Moody, 2004). It has been well-established that academic and social integration are key factors influencing retention, yet many institutions do not take a systematic approach to ensuring adequate integration opportunities for online students.

Faculty members, at the front-lines of the retention issue, can help to improve student success rates by providing a sense of community in the online classroom and making meaningful interaction and student engagement a priority. Functional units of student services should work collaboratively with faculty members to expand the breadth of support for online learners, with the conviction that retention is everyone’s issue, and fostering student success is everyone’s responsibility.

The following section provides a sample model in which three areas of student services work together to support online faculty members in identifying at-risk students and using analytics to detect potential risks and address issues so as to avoid attrition.

Student orientation

There is ample evidence that new-student orientation programs are a warranted retention strategy, especially when the program incorporates both academic and non-academic factors and acts as a socially inclusive and supportive environment (Colton et al., 1999; Tinto, 1993). An online orientation for students who are new to online learning can assist with issues that are specific to this group (ensuring online learning readiness, time management skills, accessing and utilizing necessary technologies, and becoming familiar with the online learning environment).

Orientation should go beyond the “soft skills” of technology-use and aim to integrate online students into the community of the institution by providing opportunities to interact with peers, faculty, and support staff such as advisors, as well as to become aware of the array of support services that are available to them. Synchronous events, discussion boards, and live chat sessions can easily be incorporated into an online orientation to provide students with multiple opportunities for interaction.

Enrollment management

An online orientation is devised with the intent of transitioning students to a new environment. Orientation should provide students with the resources they need to be successful in that environment as well as information on how and where to get help if they need it. Many students, though, just might not be ready for college, or may not have the skills that are required to succeed in an online learning environment.

A diagnostic tool, when implemented during a new-student orientation, could potentially identify students who are at-risk of not succeeding. Then, an early-warning system can be set up by enrollment management to monitor these at-risk students, especially during their first year when students are most likely to drop-out. Today, most Learning Management Systems (LMS) have alert-system capabilities, or the ability to integrate with an external early-warning application. Technology is capable of tracking a student’s graded performance, late or miss¬ing course work, and attendance within an online course, and other learning analytics, therefore allowing instructors or administrators to intervene appropri¬ately and proactively so that the issue is addressed before problems arise that could possibly lead to drop-out or failure.

Academic advisement

Technology-enabled alert systems have many benefits, including making intervention initiatives efficient to manage, and offering real-time information about student progress. If a student is falling behind or showing signs of failure in an online course, an academic advisor can be alerted so that he/she may intercede and provide immediate assistance to the student. Academic advisement can play a strong role in retention by serving as a facet of institutional support, and, in an online environment specifically, advisement may provide a “humanizing” element to the online experience.

Online students are faced with many unique challenges, including a lack of social community, which may lead to a sense of isolation. Therefore, a proactive advising policy is recommended for online students, one which is focused, direct, and of a high frequency, so that students feel a sense of support rather than isolation. An online academic advisor should find ways to connect with students, such as providing required scheduled meetings, optional synchronous video office hours, and frequent contacts (just to “check-in” or if an alert is triggered by the early-warning system).


The problem of retention in online education represents a significant challenge. As institutions continue to use online courses and programs as an enrollment strategy it becomes increasingly necessary for faculty and administrators to search for potential solutions to this retention problem. The solution lies in increased efforts to meet the needs of online learners by implementing a cohesive plan in which faculty members and student services work together to ensure the success of this growing population of students. An institution in which functional units combine efforts to meet the specific needs of learners is one which demonstrates a concern for the success of all students, regardless of the learning modality.

Carr, S. (2000). As distance education comes of age, the challenge is keeping the students. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(23), A39-A41.

Colton, G. M., Connor, U. J., Jr., Shultz, E. L., & Easter, L. M. (1999). Fighting attrition: One freshman year program that targets academic progress and retention for at-risk students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 1(2), 147-162.

Moody, J. (2004). Distance education: Why are the attrition rates so high? The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 5(3), 205-210.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the cause and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Anne Reed is an instructional designer at the University of Buffalo, Office of Online Education, Graduate School of Education.

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  • Mike

    Thank you for your insight above. I would agree that the problem of retention in online education (at post secondary as well as high school levels) represents a significant challenge. In your conclusion you mentioned online programs as an enrollment strategy and to me, this is the bigger issue with student retention. Many universities and schools are rolling out online programs with an emphasize on boosting enrollment, while the rigor and relevance of a meaningful curriculum suffer. Student orientations, enrollment management tools, and academic advisement is necessary in the retention of students, but to me this is only half the battle. The heart of the issue comes in promoting a relevant and academically rigorous online classroom/curriculum. If we want to retain online learners, then online education needs to first be about student learning, and not enrollment.

  • Chris

    Enrollment and quality academic outcomes can work hand in hand. The mindset from institutions where one is isolated from the other creates the unnecessary tension between academics and administration/enrollment. I agree that academic quality should have been part of the article, but in these times of shrinking budgets, reduced revenue, etc., then the focus on enrollment provides the opportunity for academics to have the resources necessary to enhance the student learning experience. Thank you for the article Anne.

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