In California, and to a lesser extent in many states, the problem of overcrowded community colleges and public universities is getting worse. To address this problem, many institutions are choosing to offer online programs, and students are enrolling. While online degree programs can help solve this crisis, there are program delivery, retention and degree-completion challenges posed by this type of learning that must be addressed if we are to serve students well.
A survey published this month by the League for Innovation in the Community College and the Campus Computing Project reports that community colleges are seeing increased enrollment in every major type of program, especially online programs.
The survey author reports that while colleges are hiring new faculty to serve this growing population, they are reducing the number of positions for academic counselors and others who help students, especially as they expand online offerings. He questioned the online expansion without the accompanying academic support.
I question it, too. Online degree programs offer solutions to overcrowded physical classrooms, and they provide a lower-cost, convenient alternative for students who want a college education but can’t attend a residential institution for any number of reasons.
However, launching an online degree program is not as simple as hiring adjunct professors and teaching courses that have been used in a physical campus setting. To do it right, you need a good learning management system, faculty who are experienced and effective online teachers, training and instructional design support, IT support and online tutors.
Of equal importance is an enhanced level of student support, especially help with financing a college education and with navigating the complex bureaucracy that we call higher education.
One way an institution can help students through this maze of financial aid forms, bursar office policies, registration deadlines, and graduation requirements is by utilizing success coaches.
Success coaches can be employed by the institution, independent contractors, or can be employees of retention service providers. Often these coaches are former K-12 educators or are career higher education professionals; some even possess executive, fitness, or health coach certification. Regardless of their background, they have a common interest in education and student success and have been trained as student service generalists who understand admissions, financial aid, registration, bursar policies, and academic support resources.
Arguably, the primary role of a coach is to provide support and direction through goal setting, organizational and time-management skill development, staying on task, problem resolution, and developing college survival skills. However, they also know enough about higher education and institutional policy to point students in the right direction for additional support.
Yes, success coaches do add expense and an additional layer of personnel to the institutional organizational chart. But if an institution expects to support students, grow enrollment and live up to a promise of being learner-centered, the provision of a success coach as a single point of contact is very important. That is because students demand, deserve, and expect to not get the run-around.
Students don’t want to have to contact four different offices to obtain answers on how to switch courses or resolve a student billing question. They appreciate the ability to contact one person who knows their background and challenges and can point them toward the correct institutional resource. In fact, if an institution can avoid the run-around and provide a better student experience it can be the difference in retaining students, ensuring that they ultimately accomplish their educational objectives and earn a degree.
One might suggest that higher education has flourished nicely for centuries without success coaches, so why do we need them now? I would submit that we are in a different time, with more first-generation and other non-traditional students entering our institutions than ever before. These students need support, but in this economy, they are not always getting it. And while success coaches can help and are helping on-campus students, I believe they are even more critical when employed in online programs.
At Tiffin University, we began using success coaches with our at-risk students on campus in the fall of 2007. In the fall of 2008, we took our best practices for on campus learning and applied them to online learning, when we created Ivy Bridge College of Tiffin University , an online associate degree program that offers students mentoring and support and transferability to most four-year colleges and universities.
Whether a student lives in Maine or Oregon, he or she has a success coach to help them make the transition from high school to college, and to keep them on track toward that associate degree and transfer to a four-year college or university.
Success coaches add cost to educating the online learner, but that cost is more than recouped in improved student experience, retention and degree completion. In our first year offering the Ivy Bridge College associate degree program, we have seen more than two-thirds of our students persist from the fall to spring semester, traditionally the most challenging for students. This is a persistence rate that would make many community colleges envious.
Higher education’s commitment to access for all who want to earn a college degree is being tested by the economy. I believe we will pass this test because we will find and implement innovative solutions that not only expand access, but also increase success through retention and degree completion.
If we are going to turn to online learning to solve the crisis of crowded classrooms, it is my firm belief that we must provide a heightened level of student support to ensure that these students will be successful. The provision of mentoring, encouragement and support through success coaching is an excellent way to address that need.
Otherwise, we’re setting many students up for failure.
Cam Cruickshank is Vice President for Enrollment Management at Tiffin University.