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What’s On Their Minds: Incoming Adult and Online Students

As each new term begins we engage in important discussions about how to best support incoming freshmen. But today’s college students represent a more “post traditional” population such as working adults, online and part-time learners. In an effort to ensure we include this important and growing population in this year’s discussions, we take a closer look at “what’s on their minds”. What we find points to four areas institutions should address when welcoming new adult and online students.

Quality matters most

Data collected from coaching interactions with 4,400 incoming online students at a major public research institution over a five-year period show quality of education offered as the top concern about online learning. While online learning has become more mainstream, students want to know high-quality faculty will teach their courses and experts in their respective fields have developed the curriculum in alignment with industry expectations.

Incoming Online Students’ Primary Concern with Online Learning: 2011-2015
(n=4,400)

To address this concern, institutions should provide incoming online learners with evidence of the quality and rigor of their chosen program. For example, highlight the ratio of full-time vs. adjunct faculty, outline the faculty training and instructional support used to adapt content for an online environment, or explain the specific factors that go into program rankings, so students can better understand how an institution assesses quality.

Online accepted as normal

In years past, incoming online students expressed concern that having a degree from an online program would put them at a disadvantage in the job search.  As leading institutions around the country have embraced online learning and employers have acknowledged the equivalency of online degrees, this worry has waned.  In fact, the same dataset referenced above shows that the percentage of incoming online students who stated their primary concern as the potential stigma of having an online degree declined from 25 percent in 2011 to nine percent in 2015.

Percentage of Incoming Online Students Whose Primary Concern is Having a Degree From An Online Program
(n=4,400)

Most leading institutions do not distinguish degrees earned online, or in hybrid programs, from those earned through classroom environments. An online student’s diploma will unlikely reflect the program format. That said, it doesn’t hurt to reassure incoming online students their degrees will not only have equal quality to those of their on-campus counterparts, but also have the same value to future employers.

Belonging Matters

Adults studying online want to feel included. Insights from coaching tens of thousands of students each year at InsideTrack show that those who participate in online programs in particular have more feelings of isolation and disconnectedness. When they can transfer elsewhere with just a few clicks, it’s essential for students to develop a meaningful connection to their chosen institution. Students should also answer questions like “Am I college material? Is this the right school for me?” with a resounding, “Yes!”

Look for ways to highlight the accomplishments of online students and engage them in the broader institutional community. For example, one large public university celebrates online student graduation and welcomes incoming online students by organizing alumni gatherings in their area. Or begin to share information about alumni resources that will give them an advantage in their post-graduation career like this student’s institution did. Finally, consider giving students a physical reminder of their belonging with some school logo gear to display proudly or provide a visual reminder that they are part of your institution’s campus community, be it virtual, physical or some combination.

Juggling it all

The number one reason for post traditional student attrition consistently stems from an inability to effectively manage multiple commitments. Meanwhile, time management is the second most commonly cited concern of incoming online students. With busy lives and competing priorities, they should have concerns. Any discussion about supporting adult students lacks completion without addressing this issue.

Our data also suggests the older the students, the likelier they will report concerns about their ability to manage commitments with students age 40 and older nearly twice as likely as those under age 25. Reasons include: a longer time out of school, increased demands on time from work and family, and a stronger self-awareness from longer life experience.

Percent of Students by Age Citing “Time Management” as their Top Concern
(n=1,280)

Whatever the reason, quantitative and qualitative evidence highlight the importance of supporting adult and online learners to navigate real logistical challenges and strengthen their skills of time management, prioritization and managing busy lives.

Students must have support to quickly strategize and prioritize competing commitments before feelings of failure and frustration lead to a downward spiral. Student support personnel can help them with guidance to consider various possibilities and always have a contingency plan in place, such as having a plan to care for a sick child or elderly family member unexpectedly the night before an exam. In some cases, support personnel might suggest decision-making criteria outlined in advance to make prioritization more efficient and prevent feelings of analysis paralysis or being overwhelmed.

Beginning with the end in mind

Finally, the majority of post traditional students enroll because of a goal to advance within an existing career. Focus on career outcomes has increased across the board in higher education, but this emphasis has intensified for adult and online learners. Unlike their “traditional” counterparts, this student population will look for evidence of how education will prepare them for the workforce.

Top Reasons Post-Traditional Students Pursuing a Degree
(n=29,791)

While it can be assumed that any student, regardless of age, considers career outcomes an important goal of pursuing a credential, we must not see career aspirations as homogenous. For example, the needs of a career changer are very different than those of a career starter or career advancer. In a closer look at the data we find that online students are 64% more likely to be career starters compared to other adult students.

Start by identifying each student’s ultimate goal and tailor communication and support accordingly. Regardless of their motivation, show them you mean business by proactively incorporating career development at every stage in the student lifecycle. This will not only demonstrate immediate value and differentiate your institution from the competition but it will motivate students to engage and speed time to impact on the job.

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