Exploring online retention through survey results of student vs. staff perceptions

Key takeaways from our webinar: What’s Needed in Student Support: Perception vs. Reality

When it comes to support for online learners, where do student needs and staff deliverables align — and where are there gaps?

That was the topic of discussion at our recent retention-focused webinar, What’s Needed in Student Support: Perception vs. Reality. In collaboration with InsideTrack, UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy conducted two in-depth surveys — one involving online students and one for higher ed staff members who provide student support services. The goal? Comparing student and staff perceptions of online support, and learning how correcting imbalances can help with retention.

Watch the Webinar:

You can download the slides from the webinar here.

What’s the top priority for online students? Why is clear communication a must — especially with emails? How can schools do a better job at integrating career exploration beyond the traditional career center? Here are three key insights from the event.

1. More emphasis on course selection and registration 

Research from the study showed that online students prioritize choosing courses and registering for classes more than staff members do. Sarah Eustis, Strategic Partnership Director at InsideTrack, talked about working with an institution that integrated their student-facing departments to provide students with “one-stop shopping” for students calling in. “Going into this new way of doing things, the school thought that most calls would be about financial aid and finances. But once the program was kicked off, the majority of calls were actually about choosing courses and registering for classes.”

Key Takeaway: Students are looking for more support with course selection and registration.

2. Better communication is a must

This same InsideTrack + UPCEA study was first conducted in 2019. One of the more interesting comparisons between that study and the current one is the increase in students citing poor communication with their schools — an issue that has grown since 2019. Why the increase? It’s likely due to the pandemic — where less communication was done face-to-face and more communication was done via email.

To illustrate that point, Emilia Gilroy-Sander, Lead Student Support Specialist & Coach with InsideTrack, shared a story about the importance of clear communication. “With written communication being the primary mode during the pandemic, it can be hard for students to tell tone and intent,” she says. Her student, Jessica, had completed her associate’s degree after several stops and starts. “It was the first time she succeeded,” Emilia continued, “and she decided to go on and earn her bachelor’s degree.”

One day out of the blue, Jessica contacted Emilia saying she was going to drop out. “She told me ‘this program is not for me. I don’t belong. I’m not cut out for this.’ She said she’d gotten an email saying that she had plagiarized something. She had no idea why and she took it very personally.”

Coach and student talked it over, and Jessica scheduled a meeting with the school. Turns out it was a miscommunication. Jessica was using her husband’s laptop because it had Microsoft Word — and hers didn’t. Because of this, his name appeared in the footer of her paper, so the professor thought she was using someone else’s work. The error was cleared up and Jessica is still “rocking the BA program,” but this demonstrates the power of communication to derail any given student.

Key Takeaway: Clear, easily understood communication is crucial — and take extra care when sending automated notifications that might have unintended emotional impact on students.

3. Put career front and center

The vast majority of students attending college do so in order to start or change their careers. Yet according to the InsideTrack + UPCEA research, students and staff aren’t aligned on the importance of career exploration — with students prioritizing career-readiness more than staff. This is borne out by the fact that schools typically have a strong desire to keep coursework in the classroom and all things career in the career center. Yet when the two can be incorporated, students (and their future employers) can benefit.

Sarah Eustis of InsideTrack talked about an institution that embedded experiential learning into nearly every one of their classes. The goal, she said, was to connect what students do and learn in class with their career goals. “This helps keep students focused on why they’re in school and on their end goal,” she noted.

When asked by a webinar attendee if embedding career into courses makes a difference with employers, Eustis replied “Anecdotally, yes. There’s a definite connection between coursework and what’s required on the job.” She cited networking skills as an example, learning to build relationships in order to find out about different roles and different types of careers. “Employers often want some sort of hands-on experiential component to the college education,” she said. Blending this with coursework has a positive effect on career post-graduation.

Key Takeaway: Integrate coursework and career to better prepare students for the workforce.

Understanding the online student perspective 

At the end of the day, understanding your students and their needs can positively impact retention. Students are looking for more support in areas of mental health, technology, and connecting with their online community, for example. Panelists discussed the notion that in the past, there’s been a false assumption that if you’re an online student, you don’t care as much about connecting and being part of your school. Making students feel like they belong and have a strong sense of community is a key factor in their success. Regardless of age, school or program type, understanding the student perspective and bolstering support to match can be the difference between students successfully completing their degrees or not.


When looking at communication channels, do student and staff preferences line up? Take an in-depth look at one specific InsideTrack + UPCEA research topic — communication preferences.

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