Supporting Returning Students on the Pathway to SuccessBeth Brunk-Chavez | Dean of Extended University, University of Texas at El Paso
Many, if not most, higher education institutions are concerned about their ability to retain students from when they first enroll through to graduation. In addition to producing satisfactory graduation rates, as more students continue to enroll, institutions share a portion of the tuition revenue. We are all familiar with the adage that the cost is higher to recruit a new student than to keep one.
At UTEP Connect—the University of Texas at El Paso’s suite of 100-percent online programs—we understand the importance of this perspective and couple that with our belief that “it’s all about the students.” The majority of our undergraduate students are returning after stopping out at UTEP or is transferring from another institution. Because they are making the financial, time and emotional commitment to return and complete their degree, the UTEP Connect team is dedicated to doing all we can to make sure they are successful. This means we must work to remove potential barriers and assist in building motivation and confidence within students to be successful while enrolled in their online classes and after they graduate.
Impediments to Retention and Completion for Returning Students
From an academic perspective, we find that retention is primarily influenced by two conditions for those students returning to school after a break: students’ academic standing prior to returning to classes and managing the transition from a traditional schedule to an online schedule.
When students are returning to school after falling into academic probation, they can be discouraged by the amount of time it takes to achieve good standing. Some students find online classes more challenging than face-to-face courses given that they don’t have to be present in a classroom on a regular schedule and do not realize that online courses require the same amount of work/study time as a traditional course.
They may also feel lost in an online class, particularly if the instructor isn’t as “present” as students would prefer. Although these are significant concerns, we often hear that students don’t complete a semester or return the following semester because of challenges and/or struggles outside of their academic experiences.
Predictably, one of the biggest impediments that students encounter when continuing their education is finances; what financial resources are available and when a student can access them play a significant role in students reaching their educational goals.
Full-time employment and family commitments may also interfere with students’ assignments and discourage students from pursuing his/her degree. While taking courses online allows for a certain amount of flexibility in when and where students complete their work, it can be challenging to find the right amount of time to add course requirements to an already busy work and family schedule. Too often the classes are the easiest responsibility to put on the backburner, and understandably so.
Overcoming the Roadblocks to Success: High Tech + High Touch
Because our fully-online students don’t come to campus, UTEP Connect focuses on helping students feel connected to their advisor, their instructors and the campus. UTEP Connect’s Student Success Advisors participate in a “high touch” advising model to not only provide students with a sense of security, but also to provide them with the accurate information they need when they need it. From students’ first inquiry about a program to graduation, the UTEP Connect Enrollment Counselors and then the Student Success Advisors are in constant contact via phone and email.
Student Success Advisors assist students in troubleshooting concerns they may have with navigating the learning management system, communicating with instructors, and connecting with the right resources for success in their courses. Weekly communication is delivered to help build skills specific to online students. Some of the emails they receive include how to organize the semester, how to navigate discussion boards, and how to work in online groups. Webinars are scheduled to enhance students’ knowledge base on topics that are specific to online students such as navigating financial aid and online library resources. These webinars are captured and then made available to students anytime. Finally, we are building an online hub for students to access information on a variety of subjects as well as link to resources and chat with an advisor. Students on academic probation receive additional assistance as they work to improve their grade point average.
We think it’s important to involve faculty in student success initiatives as much as possible. In addition to robust preparation and assistance in building and delivering an online course aimed at student success, we are working with professors who will provide us with early alerts on students who may need additional academic intervention.
At UTEP, we consider the various life experiences that students bring to their coursework to be an asset rather than a deficit or an impediment. However, we are also aware that sometimes these experiences can lead to a stressful situation while also trying to study for a biology test or record a speech. We obviously can’t help students cut back on work hours or care for their family, but we want to make sure that students have many opportunities to locate and engage with the support they need to be successful.
Technology is the backbone in supporting all efforts of fully online students. Our Contact Center employs a system that tracks phone and online conversations with students. We provide resources to students via the same learning management system (LMS) in which their classes are delivered. We depend on this LMS, along with the assistance of the instructor, to provide the Student Success Advisors with analytics that identify how we can best assist students in their courses. Additionally, various resources on campus including the University Writing Center and the Career Center use a variety of technologies to guide students through work for their course such as revising a research project and preparation for interviewing for a job.
To access all these services, however, our students must also have some knowledge of working with and maneuvering through online applications and portals. When they first start with UTEP Connect, we encourage students to become computer-empowered users of technology. In other words, they learn how use and take advantage of the technologies available to them—and they aren’t shy to reach out for assistance when things aren’t working quite right.
Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to ensure we minimize as many impediments to success as possible for our returning students so they can focus their energies on their academics, rather than on bureaucratic and time-management obstacles. We have found that, through the effective use of technology and the creation of a high-touch support system, we can help fully online returning students focus on their education and stay on the pathway to postsecondary success.
Author Perspective: Administrator