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Online Learning Expands Access, but Our Focus Must Remain on Student Success


Two striking trends in American higher education are on a collision course. A worrisome number of undergraduates — more than six in ten — fail to complete their degrees on time. Meanwhile, an explosive growth in affordable, convenient online offerings is dramatically expanding college access for the very students most at risk of dropping out.

In other words, online learning paradoxically combines opportunities and challenges in one complex package. The bottom quartile of students faces not so much an access problem as a completion problem. Higher education leaders need to harness technology not just to enroll students but to support them through graduation — especially the most vulnerable undergrads.

This mission is at the heart of BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s efforts to serve first-generation and low-income students through affordable online learning. But we are always seeking ways to improve our work. To that end, with assistance from Strada Education Network, we recently convened a range of like-minded organizations who are similarly focused on completion and overall student success. That led to what was certainly an incomplete, but compelling list of organizations and the formation of the Online Student Success Symposium (OS3).

Some of the participants were universities working directly with their own students, like EdPlus at Arizona State University and Western Governors University. Others were service providers like Inside Track and Straighterline that focus on helping to mentor students and reducing risk for specific populations. The presidents and their leadership teams gathered in Salt Lake City last fall to share insights around online student success and to learn from each other. With permission from the OS3 participants, we decided to share publicly the summary findings from the symposium. Topics of the report include: Data Analytics, Curriculum, Standards and Measurement, and Mentoring and Coaching.


Participants reached consensus on five key takeaways or best practices:

  • Understand current and future student populations.
  • Design online programs and courses to deliver personalized learning.
  • Leverage new technologies to optimize the impact of human coaching and mentoring.
  • Explore multiple models for building community.
  • Build a data-driven culture of innovation and accountability.

The completion crisis facing U.S. higher education shows that much of the traditional degree structure is not designed for the contemporary realities of student motivation, particularly for students at the greatest risk. The crisis continues because many universities have been hesitant to break with tradition and engage with new models to promote completion.
We share the report today in a spirit of collaboration and with a hope to expand the dialogue around online student completion and overall success.

Read Strada’s full report .