At a time when record numbers of college students are struggling to graduate, the forecast is even bleaker for online students. On average, 59 percent of college students at four-year schools complete a bachelor's degree in six years [source: NCES]. In comparison, the six-year graduation rate for students attending the University of Phoenix online is only 4.3 percent [source: The Education Trust].
Why do so many online students drop out? For starters, many of these learners are "nontraditional" students – that is, students who either study part-time, pursue a two-year degree, attend a for-profit college, or are older than 21. They're also more likely to work full time while doing their degrees [source: Casselman]. Juggling work, family and school is hard enough, but it's doubly challenging to stay motivated and on task without fixed class schedules and the face-to-face support of teachers and peers.
According to the most recent statistics, 32 percent of college students take at least one Web-based class each semester [source: Allen and Seaman]. Whether you are a traditional college student or a working adult pursuing your degree online, follow these helpful tips for staying motivated and thriving in the virtual world:
- Make your own class schedule: Structure is the key to staying motivated. Choose a time every day that's solely dedicated to schoolwork. If you work full time, it could be early in the morning or in the evenings. Let your spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, family and friends know that this is your "class time" so they'll leave you alone to work.
- Set short- and long-term goals: What's the ultimate goal of getting your degree online? A promotion at work? A new and better job? Getting a long-deferred college diploma? Whatever your long-term goal, you need to envision it every day. Draw a picture of yourself standing on stage with your diploma, or cut out an image from a magazine and tape it on a wall in your work area. Every time you feel like quitting, look at that picture to remind yourself why you're doing this. Every week, make a list of short-term goals that will get you to your final destination — finish reading chapter 3, do the problem set, talk to career services — and check them off as you go.
- Build relationships with classmates – When you're taking a class online, it's easy to feel isolated and detached from your learning community. Most online classes include some kind of message board for class discussions. Instead of simply making the minimum number of posts, attempt to meaningfully engage with other students. If you read a particularly interesting comment, let the person know how much you appreciated it and add your own thoughts. This kind of personal interplay will lead to stronger virtual relationships. Soon you'll be excited to check the boards and hear what your classmates have said, further motivating you to complete your work.
- Find your cheerleaders – One of the biggest reasons that working adults drop out of college programs is that they feel torn between school and other responsibilities like family and work [source: Schepp]. Before you enroll in an online degree program, you need the full support of family, friends and co-workers who can act as your cheerleaders, not your critics or distractions.
For lots more information about online learning and tips for higher education success, check out the related HowStuffWorks articles below.
Author's Note: How to Stay Motivated When Your Class Has No Classroom
In a 2012 survey of chief academic officers — the folks in charge of academic programs at public and private colleges across the United States — 88 percent of them strongly agreed with the phrase "Students need more discipline to succeed in online courses" [source: Allen and Seaman]. This is in direct contradiction to the public perception that online courses are somehow "easier" than traditional college classes. The academic content is largely the same between online and in-person classes; what's different is that passing a class online requires far more self-discipline and self-motivation. I believe that online classes — far from being a blanket solution for working adults — should be carefully integrated with in-person learning and support to bolster motivation and maximize success.
- Allen, I. Elaine; Seamon, Jeff. "Changing Courses: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States." January 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014) http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/changingcourse.pdf
- Casselman, Ben. "Number of the Week: 'Non-Traditional' Students are Majority on College Campuses." The Wall Street Journal. July 6, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014) http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2013/07/06/number-of-the-week-non-traditional-students-are-majority-on-college-campuses/
- The Education Trust. "University of Phoenix – Online Campus" (Oct. 10, 2014) http://www.collegeresults.org/collegeprofile.aspx?institutionid=372213
- National Center for Educational Statistics. "Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students." May 2014 (Oct. 10, 2014) http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cva.asp
- Schepp, David. "Top 6 Reasons Adult College Students Drop Out." AOL Jobs. Aug. 13, 2012 (Oct. 10, 2014) http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2012/08/13/top-6-reasons-older-college-students-drop-out/