College for America Blog

When Effective Student Support Is Built Into an Online Degree Program


Posted In: Academics, Students, Workforce Insight

Jan • 16 • 2017


Student support services can help students get the most out of their college experience. Online students are no exception, but the online environment presents new challenges and opportunities for colleges seeking to provide best-in-class support. As a result, online degree programs are designing innovative new student support services designed especially for this growing student population.

Yvonne Simon, chief learning architect at College for America, explains that the mostly non-traditional students they serve have unique needs. They’re often professionals working full-time and attempting to balance work, school and family responsibilities. Many of them have been out of school for years and most have never operated in a higher education environment.  

Student success is essential not just for the students themselves, but also for their employers. To meet the needs of students and, by extension, employers, CfA created a system that includes advising, timely reviews, and a strong online community.

Data Based, Student Guided

Optimizing success for non-traditional students in online degree programs means not just researching the most proven student support services techniques but also asking for student input.

“We didn’t assume we knew what students needed but we asked them in advance and built a model around those responses,” says Simon. “We’re working with them as individuals and that approach is personalized.”


Students told CfA they needed guidance on how to plan ahead and how to integrate their school work into their existing responsibilities. Services needed to be accessible whenever the student happened to be online.

As a result of this input, many of those services are built directly into the students’ online portal rather than through a separate system. This portal is also the place through which students monitor their progress and submit projects.

“You see how far you are in your program; you see how many ‘kudos’ you have for the week,” says Simon, referring to CfA’s participation points system. “You see how many elements you’ve mastered; you also see your advisor.”


Productive Persistence Through Continuous Advising

Each student has access to both academic reviewers and a dedicated advisor.


Reviewers are subject matter experts who evaluate a student’s’ work and help them move towards mastery. They review projects and deliver detailed feedback within 48 hours, and they coordinate with College for America’s curriculum and assessment developers to provide students the best learning support possible. The curriculum team works with employers and academic experts to make sure that students are learning the skills that will serve them in their workplaces.


In addition to reviewers, students benefit from a dedicated advisor — who often have a background in counseling and are trained in effective coaching. “We took the best of what’s out there and blended it with advising and what we knew from a social component,” Simon says.


One of the major influencers in the creation of the student support program was the Carnegie Foundation’s Productive Persistence model. This research-based instructional model, originally created to help students excel in math, focuses on helping students to understand the value of a given task so that they remain motivated to achieve it.


“Building this into the program really helps inform what students need to become productive and persistent,” says Simon.


This approach is echoed in the role of College for America advisors. In addition to helping students understand their academic assessments, advisors help students draw the connection between the academic projects and their professional goals. A student will generally set up one virtual meeting a week with an advisor, at least at first. Gradually students become more independent.

“We know students will persist in work that’s relevant to them,” Simon says. “In the end, if the student can’t make the case for themselves, they won’t persist.”


More on this subject: Students give College for America high marks in independent survey


A community of supporters


To help stay motivated, students have an online support network, but they are also encouraged to build their own social learning network.


“For some students the best support comes from someone who might work next door to them,” Simon says. “Even in their family, for example, who is the person who’s going to help them persist? Who’s there to be excited about their accomplishments?”


Despite asynchronous work and an online learning environment, having a community can remind students that they’re not in this alone.


“Your advisor may not be working when you’re online, but you can usually find someone in the community who is,” says Simon. “Just having a peer who you can run something by, or vent with, or brag to, that’s a really important part of the learning process.”

The true impact of student support


Supporting students pays big dividends for both students and their employers. It empowers students with the confidence to participate in the business. They can see that what they’re learning matters to their work teams and to their managers.


“So much of this comes down to engagement and dialogue,” Simon says. “We try to build trust that the process can move you from A to Z when you didn’t before.”

Simon recalls one student who had worked at a call center for decades at remote site, and she felt disconnected from the rest of the company and that her work did not have much impact.


Once she started her degree program and started working with her advisor, she realized that her call center was part of a greater whole and so was she. She began to think of herself as a contributing partner, invested in the success of the organization. She took personal ownership of the business and her role in it.


Both the employee and the business benefit from this kind of engagement. The employee feels more fulfilled in her work and is more likely to seek opportunities for growth and development, which contributes to retention and innovation across the workplace.

“When you have that lightbulb moment,” Simon says, “you become a different employee.”


Emma Gallimore is a freelance writer with a degree in journalism from the University of Maine. She reports on trends affecting the education, business, health and technology sectors.