Retaining online students through integrated services

Tracy Hart, Program Planning Officer at the University of New Mexico's Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), has research interests in the what it means to feel like one "matters," with a specific focus on the online student experience with support services at the University of New Mexico. 

Currently in U.S. institutions there are 6.7M students taking online courses, but retention rates are declining. To analyze if the use of student services is a strong indicator of retention, Dr. Hart designed a survey to examine the relationship of student support services with students’ sense of mattering for online students attending UNM.  Research questions proposed were:

  • What support services do students utilize?
  • Is there a relationship between feelings of mattering and use of services?
  • How did the students’ interaction with services impact their sense of mattering to UNM?

The study was conducted during the 2015-2016 academic year. During that time, 1,700 students each semester were exclusively online. Invitations were sent to 4,276 students.  

A total of 221 students returned the survey and 186 students indicated that they utilized the support services of the University. Respondents were primarily undergraduate students across 41 majors and 11 colleges. Twice as many women as men responded and 50% of the respondents were White while 33% of the respondents were Hispanic. Most (40%) were 4th year seniors and 20% were juniors. A total of 20% of the respondents were first year master’s students. Ages ranged from 19 to 50+ with the largest number in the 20-49 age range.

According to the study results:

  • Services contributed to students’ feelings of mattering, particularly those services with relationship-style interactions.
  • Students used a wide array of services and generally found them useful.
  • There was a statistically significant positive relationship between students’ feelings of mattering and their use of nine support services.
  • Positive and negative interactions impact students’ feeling of mattering with no differentiation as to the role of the person providing the service.

Some implications for practice include the need for customer training for faculty and staff; the development of a community specific for online students; a focus on relationship-style interactions, and fostering a culture of mattering for students at a university.

Dr. Hart presented her research at the AACRAO Annual Meeting in Minneapolis in April. View details of her presentation here.