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Higher Education
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Student Support

Stats and key takeaways on communication preferences

In collaboration with InsideTrack, UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy launched two in-depth surveys in 2021 — one to online students and one to higher ed staff members who provide student support services. The goal? To see where student needs and staff deliverables align — and where there are gaps. Findings were organized into several categories by topic, including program satisfaction, payment method, and student challenges.

A quick look at methodology

To be eligible to participate in the student survey, students had to be enrolled at a college or university in a program that was at least 50% online. A total of 5,621 students from 21 colleges and universities responded to the survey request. Students in programs that were mostly or completely on-campus were excluded from the results.

For the staff survey, institutions were asked to select staff members who provide support services for online students. This ran the gamut from academic advisers, online support specialists, and registrars to those in enrollment management and administrators within colleges of online and continuing education. A total of 487 staff members from 19 institutions responded to the survey request.

Email is the top dog

For all the talk of email becoming less effective, 97% of both students and staff rated email as either “very useful” or “somewhat useful”, making it by far the top communication method. Only 1% of students — and no staff members — listed email as not applicable to them. Interestingly, the percentage of students who ranked email as “very useful” (75%) correlated to student age, increasing from the youngest to the oldest age groups.

The value of video meetings

The communication method that came in second for both students and staff, well behind emailing, was video/virtual meetings, with 40% of students and 57% of staff rating this method as very useful. Once again, students and staff at private institutions were more likely to find video meetings and virtual events very useful, compared to their public institution peers.

A phone call disconnect

When it comes to connecting students and support staff via phone calls, the two groups differed in their views on the usefulness of this communication channel — with just 26% of students rating phone calls as “very useful,” compared to 48% of staff members. Other noteworthy facts related to connecting via phone as a communication channel:

  • The number of students who rated phone calls "very useful" increased as the student age increased
  • Undergrads rated phone calls as either "somewhat useful" or "very useful" at a rate 9% higher than grad students
  • Students at private universities found phone calls to be more valuable than their counterparts at public institutions

Texting gains traction

Using texts as a way to communicate was rated “very useful” by 25% of both students and staff. Students and staff at smaller institutions found text messages more valuable than their peers at larger schools. Compared to a version of the survey fielded in 2019, texting has grown in popularity and is seen as an increasingly useful way to connect students and student support staff.

Differing views on in-person meetings

Of all the communication methods surveyed, the biggest gap came from in-person meetings. For students, 34% found in-person meetings either very or somewhat useful. For staff members, that number was significantly higher at 57% — a difference of 23%. Considering the types of challenges faced by online students — work, family, and educational commitments — time is limited. Understandably, the desire for more time-consuming in-person meetings is being replaced by alternative communication methods. Staff members, on the other hand, often believe that in-person meetings work best. Thus the gap.

  • Students attending school 100% online were the least likely to consider in-person meetings useful
  • As student age increased, the percentage of students who found in-person meetings to be useful decreased
  • Conversely, as staff member age increased, the percentage of support staff who found in-person meetings to be useful increased

Communication commonality – and challenges

With the exception of email (which 97% of students and staff deemed very or somewhat useful), student support staff found all communication methods more useful than the students themselves. Staff especially placed more value on phone calls, along with communication methods with a visual or face-to-face component.

Over the past decade, the number of students taking some or all of their college courses online has been steadily rising. Then COVID-19 hit, forcing all schools to quickly go online. Since then, as institutions have grappled with a mix of on-campus, online and hybrid learning, a growing number of students have decided to continue their degree paths online. Because of this, it’s more important than ever that institutions understand what factors contribute to student satisfaction and success in their online programs.

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