Preventing a Student Retention Crisis This Fall

Administrators and professors have worked hard to help students continue their education this fall, but can we keep students engaged when they’re learning in online classrooms?

Dr. Rebecca Glazier, Associate Professor at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, joined the  Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about being prepared for a potential student retention crisis this fall with so many “new” online students and what we can do to prevent it.

Why Online Students Historically Struggle Persevering to Graduation

Teaching and learning online gets really challenging. Without seeing a professor or another classmate, students can feel alone and disenfranchised. It can be easy to forget about online classes, too. With everything else that’s going on in students’ personal lives and in the world at large, online learning can fall to the bottom of their priority lists. Consequently, students are much more likely to drop or to fail those online classes.

This is not new or related to the pandemic. It’s been going on for years. People who study online teaching and learning  know that the online retention rates consistently fall anywhere from 5% to 40% lower than the in-class retention rates. 

“The more online classes a student takes,” Rebecca said, “the less likely they are to be retained.” 

For students who have families or who work full time, taking one or two online courses can really help because it adds flexibility. But research shows there’s a tipping point: if students take more than 40% of their course load online, you start to see a precipitous decline in their retention rates. When teaching or learning online — the same course, the same professor, the same student is less likely to stick with the program. 

“Among my own students at my own university,” Rebecca told us, “students who take all of their classes online are about 20% less likely to be retained than students who are taking only one or two classes online.”

How Faculty Can Improve Online Student Retention

These numbers can feel a little discouraging, but there is good news. According to the data, the faculty makes more of a difference in student success than any technology, program, or initiative that universities have tried. The key to successful retention is students having a good relationship with their professors.

Rebecca knows this from personal experience:

“When I was a brand new faculty member teaching online, I looked at my online Introduction to Political Science class and I compared it to my face-to-face class, I saw that 13% more of my students were failing and dropping out. I was horrified. But when I made a concerted effort to connect with my students, to really make those real human connections with them, and to build relationships with them, I completely closed that retention gap.” 

The data bears out Rebecca’s experience: professors can make that critical difference.

For many professors, connecting comes almost naturally in person. We smile, use body language, make eye contact, and chat with students. It’s easy to build relationships and rapport with students when we’re teaching face to face. But casual interactions don’t happen online. So we have to be much more intentional about creating opportunities for connection.

Lots of professors are coming up with new ways to do this. For example, before Rebecca’s class even starts, she sends a survey to ask students if they have a nickname they prefer to go by, their preferred personal pronoun, what they binge watch on Netflix, and any challenges that might make it difficult for them to do well this semester. 

“When we show a little bit of extra care and concern about our students as real people,” Rebecca said, “they want to stay engaged in our class, and they want to work harder, and they want to do well. We’ll see much greater student success when we show that caring and that human connection.”

Next Steps to Keep New Online Learners Engaged This Fall

Institutions need to give new online students as much information as they can about the challenges that come with online classes and encourage them to connect with their faculty. 

Right now, a lot of institutions are training professors on how to record videos, connect on Zoom, and navigate Blackboard. But faculty members also need to receive training in how to connect with their online students. 

After all, learners don’t care about the bells and whistles of an online class. That’s not what will help them succeed. Instead, students want a relationship with a professor who cares about them and wants them to succeed. That means, be there for students, respond to their questions, reply to their emails, and help them when they need help.

“If institutions can prioritize that pedagogical training for online classes over technology,” Rebecca said, “I think they’ll be way ahead of the game.”


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Rebecca Glazier from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.