Online Models Provide Answers to Free Tuition Infrastructure QuestionsShannon McCarty | Dean of Instruction and Academic Affairs, Rio Salado Community College
Higher education institutions are facing new challenges that can lead to new opportunities. National reform initiatives are placing an emphasis on college access, affordability and degree attainment. Race To The Top challenges colleges to increase the number of college graduates while maintaining affordability and increasing access. Achieving The Dream, a national non-government reform movement, focuses on increasing student success while closing the gap in completion rates for community college students. President Obama’s 2020 College Completion Goal focuses the efforts of students, educators and communities to propel the U.S. to the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
These are a few of the initiatives that will drive students to the doors of higher education. Once students walk through our thresholds, how do we engage, empower and encourage their success? This will be our biggest opportunity to make infrastructural changes and re-envision resources to support student success.
Current infrastructures at two-year colleges will be taxed to meet the needs of a growing student population. Brick-and-mortar classrooms may reach capacity and have to turn students away. Faculty load will be maxed as will the number of qualified instructors. Student services and staff managing some of the college’s bureaucratic functions—such as advisors, registrars and even tutors—will be limited due to budget constraints. New opportunities will emerge as institutions consider new structures, practices and policies. Colleges that are flexible, creative and innovative will rise to meet these opportunities.
Online colleges provide access and increase capacity to support increasing student enrollment numbers. Colleges can leverage predictive modeling and analytics to evaluate current practices and how they best serve students. Services can be personalized to the needs of student populations. For example, does a certificate-seeking student need the same support structure as a degree-seeking student? Does the excelling student need the same outreach and mentoring as an at-risk or struggling student? New modeling tools can help institutions make these decisions and re-think infrastructures to provide proactive or just-in-time support.
Classroom structures can adjust, integrating and leveraging technology to again identify specific student needs. Adaptive platforms consider student data and behavior, suggesting when a student is well prepared for an exam. Dashboards can provide insightful tools for instructor interactions and interventions. The instructor role can be utilized as both the subject matter expert and student mentor. Instructors can focus efforts and identify those students struggling with content and motivation. The instructor interaction is a powerful tool, providing opportunities to increase these interactions can lead to student success.
Colleges will be faced with limited resources and budgets to meet the needs of increasing demand. There will not be one practice or model that works across all of higher education. However, understanding the needs of your students and community will be instrumental. Research supports the importance of interactions and collaboration focused on student success, persistence and ultimately completion. , , 
Technology cannot replace or replicate these interactions, but it may provide the direction and support to sustain personalized learning at scale. Colleges that understand this need, and the benefits of technology, will be well poised to serve the 21st-Century learner and to succeed in the era of educational reform.
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 Komarraju, M., Musulkin, S., and Bhattacharya, G. (2010). Role of student-faculty interactions in developing college students’ academic self-concept, motivation and achievement. Journal of College Student Development, 51(3), 332-342.
 Lotkowski, V.A., Robbins, S.B., and Noeth, R.J. (2004). The Role of Academic and Non‐Academic Factors in Improving College Retention. ACT, Inc. www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/college_retention.pdf
 Rugutt, J., & Chemosit, C. C. (2009). What motivates students to learn? Contribution of student-to-student relations, student-faculty interaction, and critical thinking skills. Educational Research Quarterly, 32(3), 16-28.