Home Student Retention Retaining Online Students: It Takes a Village
Retaining Online Students: It Takes a Village

Retaining Online Students: It Takes a Village


By Sherry Olsen, Associate Vice Chancellor Online Division and Christine Mullendore, Project Manager, Keiser University

Trends in online education

Over the last decade, there has been a steady increase in the number of students enrolled in online education. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse show that the number of students enrolled in at least one online course grew from 5,085,909 in 2012 to 6,657,564 in 2017, a 31% increase. Even amid a decrease in overall postsecondary enrollments, growth in online education has remained solid (Seaman, Allen, and Seaman, 2018).

The increasing popularity and growth in online education can be largely attributed to the wide variety of advantages it affords to students and institutions.

Learners, for example, benefit from increased flexibility, convenience, and access, while institutions benefit from the opportunity to increase enrollments and expand their reach to a more diverse population of students. Despite the tremendous growth and advantages, online education continues to bring about its own unique set of challenges. Namely, those related to student retention.

Prevalence and cost of attrition

For those involved in online education, it comes as no surprise to hear that online student retention remains a crucial issue for post-secondary institutions. The completion rates in online environments are historically lower than in the traditional learning environments (Hill, 2018; Muljana & Luo, 2019; Protopsaltis & Baum, 2019). Attrition rates for undergraduate online courses range from 20-50% and are reported to be 10-20% higher than traditional site-based counterparts (Hill, 2018; Muljana & Luo, 2019; Protopsaltis & Baum, 2019).

The prevalence of high attrition rates in online education have far reaching consequences and are associated with significant costs. From an institutional perspective, costs are associated with lost tuition and auxiliary revenue, increased recruitment and enrollment expenses, empty seats, and wasted resources. In addition to financial consequences, attrition rates are used to assess student, programmatic, and institutional outcomes, which are factors that, ultimately, impact an institution’s reputation and bottom line.

From a student perspective, attrition is associated with lost investment, in terms of both time and money, missed opportunity, as it relates to future employment and income, and self-perceptions of inadequacy. From a societal perspective, attrition is associated with a lower return on taxpayer dollars and states’ investments in subsidies, gaps in educational attainment across socioeconomic groups, shortage of available and qualified professionals, and lost returns from potential tax revenue. Whether analyzed from an individual, institutional, or societal perspective, there is no doubt that attrition has unfortunate implications.

Factors contributing to online attrition

Given the prevalence and negative consequences of failed retention in online environments, it is not surprising that understanding and mitigating the factors that contribute to high attrition rates among this population of students continues to be a growing concern for administrators, educators, and researchers. Evidence from a growing body of literature converges to demonstrate the multifactorial phenomenon of online student attrition. More specifically, research in recent years has revealed that attrition in online environments is influenced by various student, instructor, and institutional factors. While the exact cause of attrition may differ from student to student, researchers have identified a range of factors that are relevant in predicting attrition among online learners.

Student factors include:

  • Behavioral characteristics
    • Attitude, aptitude, and motivational thresholds
    • Clearly defined goals and college readiness
    • Locus of control
      Learning strategies
  • Demographic variables
    • Age
    • Gender
    • Income
    • Academic standing
  • Personal variables
    • Family commitments
    • Social and community obligations
    • Employment responsibilities
    • Technological constraints
    • Family support and home environment

Instructor factors include:

  • Facilitation of student engagement
    • Low social presence
    • Absence of visual and verbal cues
    • Insufficient promotion of student interaction
  • Facilitation of learning
    • Inadequate instructor-student interaction
    • Insufficient instructor presence/time in course
    • Lack of instructor guidance for understanding subject matter
    • Ineffective instructor communication
    • Vague expectations
    • Low-quality or deficient feedback
  • Course design
    • Inconsistent course structures
    • Lack of course organization
    • Uninteresting or irrelevant course elements
    • Materials or resources that are difficult to locate

Institutional factors include:

  • Institutional support
    • Inadequate online course orientation
    • Availability and efficacy of tutoring and student support services
    • Insufficient or lack of technological support
    • Inadequate outreach and resource sharing
    • Availability and quality of student support services
  • Curriculum design
    • Curriculum too-easy or too-difficult
    • Nature of the course (e.g., lower-level, core, elective, or general education)

Recommended strategies for improving online retention

Given the multivariant nature of attrition in online education, administrators need to recognize that there are many people who have an impact on student’s online learning experience (Hill, 2018). The admissions office, financial aid department, instructional design, technology, student support personnel, and faculty all play an important role in retaining online learners. To ensure the success of this growing population of non-traditional students, a systematic, collaborative approach to student retention is recommended. There are several systematic strategies used by Keiser University’s Online Division to meet the unique needs of online learners and help mitigate attrition.

Fostering synergy among stakeholders

Student retention requires the collective effort of staff and faculty. It takes a village to maintain a student-centered culture in a virtual environment. Encouraging inter- and intra-departmental communication and collaboration in supporting students helps maximize the online learning experience and improve academic success. It is critical to have stakeholders from all departments participate in process improvement and implementation initiatives to maximize the experience for online students.

Student engagement and social connectedness

Time and time again, student engagement comes up in research as a vital component to student retention. Adequate student-student interaction and student-professor interaction are two key elements for fostering student engagement and social connectedness. Small class size is an important aspect of student-professor and student-student interaction and engagement. Small online classes allow faculty to provide asynchronous and synchronous lectures on a weekly basis, provide extra help and tutoring, call students to check in, and the ability to respond to students within a 24-hour timeframe, 7 days a week. Utilizing threaded structures for discussion boards, requiring students to respond to classmates’ posts, assigning student moderators, and holding synchronous learning sessions are practices that increase social presence and help enhance peer interaction, engagement, and learning. Hosting workshops, establishing student organizations and societies, and building a strong social media presence are additional practices that can help foster connectedness and increase engagement.

Early interventions

Having a robust analytic system, where student reports are run before the student shows up on a lack of attendance report is crucial. Online students may be logging in with good attendance, however, this does not show how a student is doing in an online class. Retention reports from the first week a student begins a class should show factors such as time in course, number of posts and interactions, time in live lecture areas, where the students are spending their time, and if they are below weekly grade average benchmarks. These reports can be viewed by administrators, advisors, and faculty to identify at risk students early on. One example of an early intervention strategy for academic advisors at the online division of Keiser University is something called Predict. Advisors can access a dashboard where they see all their students and can set benchmarks to track students throughout their academic journey. For example, advisors can see if students are struggling more in quantitative courses within their program and get them the help they need early on.

Having a robust new student orientation, that students have access to 24/7 is another way to prepare students for the online experience and reduce attrition rates of first-time students.

A good online orientation should be facilitated with both asynchronous and synchronous activities before the student logs into their first online class. At Keiser’s Online Division, fulltime Psychology professors facilitate new student orientation. The professors provide live sessions on topics like time management, how to use the technology, help-center information and participate with perspective students in threaded discussions to help reduce fears often associated with taking online classes. New students are in the orientation one month prior to starting school and one month after they start school, so they always have a reference and faculty support member to go back to.

At-all times student support

Although online students often deal with a different set of challenges than traditional learners, it does not mean they require less support. To meet the needs of online learners, online departments and support centers must be built differently and tailored to the online environment. Institutional efforts should include a diverse set of offerings that are developed to provide ongoing support, enhance the student experience, and improve learning outcomes.

Ensuring departmental members are accessible when online learners need them helps cultivate continuous engagement and support with students. Academic support centers, such as those for mathematics, writing, or speech, as well as program-specific services, help promote student success and persistence through graduation. Providing access to library, technology, instructional design, and career services resources are additional strategies that strengthen student support, promote academic success, and improve retention.

Going back to “it takes a village,” hours of operation if running an online campus need to meet the needs of online students who live around the United States and the world. Keiser’s Online Division is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. There are Dean’s available nights and weekends, so students get the academic support they need along with the support of financial aid officers, admissions counselors, registrars, academic advisors, and instructional design. LMS support is 24/7 in case a student needs help resetting passwords and/or accessing their online course.

Faculty support

Providing faculty with the same support given to students, is another important strategy in fostering student retention. Faculty need support at all times of the day and night just like students. They may need advice from a Dean or Department Chair on how to handle student concerns or issues. Remember, the faculty are the first line of contact once a student starts school, and faculty need to be well versed on where to send students to get help outside of the classroom.

Well trained faculty in the pedagogy of teaching online is another important aspect in supporting student needs.

Keiser University provides all faculty wishing to teach online a month-long training program that is both synchronous and asynchronous and facilitated by faculty trainers. These faculty receive a sandbox course, which is a clone of a live course, along with access to the training classroom where they can practice what they are learning with simulated students. The trainers work side by side with the trainees in the sandbox course to provide constructive feedback. After faculty pass the training course, they are provided a faculty mentor that stays with the new faculty member for their first semester of teaching. The peer to peer mentoring program offers faculty the opportunity to gain practical advice, encouragement, and support. Providing these types of support services helps maximize the learning experience for both students and faculty.

Course design and delivery

Having a strong, well-trained instructional design team that works well with faculty is key to offering well developed online courses and course content. Faculty as discipline experts should have input into course development with instructional designers using online course compliant models such as Quality Matters. Using a master course system, helps ensure there is consistency in courses offered to online students. This is important if multiple sections of a course are being offered at the same time. A master course template facilitates ease of course navigation for students, as each main course component is in the same place regardless of the discipline. Robust course content should include things like video, adaptive learning software, blogs, wiki’s, study group capability, threaded discussions, email, and live chat features. Students deserve the feeling of a face-to-face class in an online environment, and these types of features help make this a reality.


As the demand for online education continues to grow around the globe, it is imperative that administrators and educators take strides to mitigate the high attrition rates of online students. Attrition is a multivariant issue that requires a multifaceted solution. Administrators must implement solid well planned out strategies if they wish to have a strong online environment and retain students. It takes a village!


Hill, C. (2018). Strategies for increasing online student retention and satisfaction. Faculty Focus: Special Report. Retrieved from http://mnabe-distancelearning.org/sites/default/files/strategies-for-increasing-online-student-retention.pdf

Muljana, P., & Luo, T. (2019). Factors Contributing to student retention in online learning and recommended strategies for improvement: A systematic literature review. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 18, 19-57.

Protopsaltis, S., & Baum, S. (2019). Does online education live up to its promise? A look at the evidence and implications for federal policy. Retrieved from https://mason.gmu.edu/~sprotops/OnlineEd.pdf

Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade increase: Tracking distance education in the United States. Wellesley: The Babson survey Research Group.

Sherry Olsen

SHERRY OLSEN is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Keiser University’s distance education division. In addition to serving as the President of the Online Division, Olsen manages the online environment for distance learners of sixteen (16) Keiser University campuses throughout the state of Florida and overseas. Her vision for improved higher education efficacy in the areas of online, asynchronous, and hybrid education has led Olsen to expand the quality and content of the Keiser University Online Division curriculum, and student accessibility to its services.

Olsen started her career in education in 1998 as an environmental science teacher. Her passion for the field has led her to hold positions such as University Department Chair, Dean of Academics, Senior Vice President for Online Education, and finally, Associate Vice Chancellor. Olsen is committed to education and understands its social and economic impact on the Broward County community and beyond. She has served on the SACS advisory board for Nova Middle School and has been a guest speaker at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) annual conference, presenting on online student and faculty retention, and the incorporation of successful and accurate assessments in the online environment, among other topics. She has also presented her expertise at the APSCU/CCA Leadership Institute and FAPSC annual conference. Olsen is currently a Ph.D. candidate of the Keiser University Industrial and Organizational Psychology program.

Contact Information: Sherry Olsen // Associate Vice Chancellor Online Division // Keiser University // 954-351-4040 Ext. 118 // solsen@keiseruniversity.edu // www.keiseruniversity.edu

Christine Mullendore

CHRISTINE MULLENDORE joined Keiser University’s Online Division in 2009. She spent eight years in Admissions, advancing from Admissions Counselor to Associate Director of Admissions, before transitioning to Special Projects. Christine works closely with the Associate Vice Chancellor of Online Education and oversees the University’s academic sharing initiatives with mission-aligned partner institutions. With nearly a decade of experience supporting online students and assisting mission-aligned schools, Christine understands the unique needs of distance learners and importance of implementing strategies that improve student retention and success.

Christine earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Keiser University. She has presented at the FAPSC annual conference and is the co-author of “The Longitudinal Impact of a Cultural Enrichment Program on Performance Metrics of Latin American Student in Secondary School” published in the International Journal of Business Strategy. Christine is a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Sigma Beta Delta International Honor Society, Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology, and Alpha Gamma Delta International Women’s Fraternity.

Contact Information: Christine Mullendore, Ph.D. // Project Manager // Keiser University // 954-351-4040 Ext. 271 // cmullendore@keiseruniversity.edu // www.keiseruniversity.edu



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