Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

How to improve online student retention (Yes, it can be done)

July 20, 2021

Updated July 2021. Originally published on August 29, 2019.

In 2016, online enrollment increased for the 14th year in a row, with a third of college students taking at least one class online, according to an annual analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. Now, following the widespread transition to virtual learning caused by the coronavirus pandemic, nearly every college student has had some experience with online classes.

As demand for—and reliance on—online courses grows, so does pressure to increase retention rates.

Philip DiSalvio, dean of the college of advancing and professional studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, argues that to support online student success, institutions need metrics and quality measurements that are tailored to the online learner.

DiSalvio also points out that online learning is more independent and autonomous, which requires a particular level of self-accountability and discipline. For example, students are responsible for letting their instructors know if they are falling behind, whereas in a classroom they may have received unsolicited, but well-needed guidance.

On top of this, online learners are subject to a greater emphasis on written communication and digital literacy, and often face technical issues.

To better serve online students, DiSalvio suggests the following:

1. Identify patterns in student engagement and performance

DiSalvio recommends that institutions implement the same strategies that they would use to measure on-campus student success: use data analytics strategically to identify patterns in student engagement and performance, as well as develop tailored strategies to support each student.

Research suggests that the key determining factors that make face-to-face courses effective or ineffective also apply to online courses. Not surprisingly, one of these factors includes individualized student support services.

Ed Venit, managing director at EAB, suggests that colleges adopt early alert systems that allow instructors to customize settings for which situations trigger an early alert. “Most commonly, this means asking the instructors to define what constitutes risk in their own course and then setting the schedule for reporting,” writes Venit. “In this way, the instructor fits the system around the nature of the course, not the other way around.”

2. Intervene with struggling students

It’s one thing to identify patterns in student engagement and performance, but it’s another to actually intervene with struggling students.

After all, intervention can be difficult online. But real-time analytics give colleges the opportunity to intervene with students at risk of stopping out immediately, notes Theresa Rowe, the CIO at Oakland University. Colleges are accustomed to using analytics to see what has happened over time, “but that approach does not offer much for a student in the course right now,” says Rowe. “Changing our thinking to real-time learning analytics… is essential to making a difference for a currently enrolled student.”

And because instructors and advisors have more contact with students than almost anyone one else at the institution, they are in the ideal position to respond to student needs.

For instance, Champlain College guides faculty to students most in need of help by highlighting “risk phrases” in students’ online discussion board posts. Phrases that signal academic risk, such as “help!,” “tried over and over,” or “frustrated,” are flagged for instructors, who are then encouraged to respond to the student within 24 hours.

“Following the intervention, many of those students feel they now have the support and resources required to persist.”

EAB Continuing and Online Education Study

DePaul University also offers a voluntary questionnaire to students at mid-quarter to gauge their stress levels. Students who indicate low stress levels may be sent time management resources or study tips, while students who indicate medium levels of stress are referred to peer mentoring or counseling programs. Students who indicate the highest stress levels receive a phone call from a faculty member within a few days of submitting the survey, followed by personal support. According to an EAB study, “following the intervention, many of those students feel they now have the support and resources required to persist.”

3. Mitigate the ‘distance’ in ‘distance learning’

Prior to the pandemic, most (67%) online learners lived within 50 miles of their institution. Still, online instruction can feel more distant and impersonal than face-to-face instruction. This may be especially true for the 33% students who don’t live near a campus or service center, and for the millions of students who abruptly transitioned to online learning last year.

DiSalvio recommends institutions mitigate this distance through increased virtual or in-person social interaction with instructors and fellow students.

For instance, the University of California Irvine offers both in-person and virtual office hours for its online remedial math students. “They don’t know anybody,” says Rachel Lehman, the lecturer who teaches the course. “They’re afraid. They feel stupid because they’re not in the class they’re supposed to be.”

The program, called Aloha (Active Learning Office Hours and Assignments), brings students together to work in small groups, either in person or via video chat.

Students say that the program not only facilitates friendships between students, but also helps them feel more confident and connected to the course, according to Lehman. In fact, in 2019, students who were required to participate in Aloha earned an average of 70% on the final exam—a grade nine percentage points higher than students who weren’t required to participate in the program earned last year.

Sources: Babson Survey Research Group analysis, accessed 8/29/19; DiSalvio, The EvoLLLution, 3/22/17; EAB research, accessed 8/29/19; Online College Students survey, accessed 8/29/19; Saeed, EAB expert insight, 10/15/18; Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/20; U.S. Department of Education research, accessed 8/29/19; Venit, EAB blog, 3/10/17

More Blogs


How your law school can better support, enroll, and retain students of color

More students of color applying to law school now than ever before, but successfully attracting, enrolling, and supporting…