How to improve online student engagement

3 min read

Online and community college students are typically self-starters looking to progress faster in their careers. Now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing segment of online learners who may choose not to return to campus and are new to remote learning. Online students want flexibility and need a college support system.

So how do you reach a diverse group of students who are more interested in education than campus life?

1. Make the right first impression

While traditional 4-year schools might be populated with students who are accompanied by helicopter parents, online and community college students tend to do everything themselves.

The majority of online students will search for schools and fill out financial aid forms all on their own. The more you help them with the process, the better. Reach out and learn their communication preferences early on (texts, calls, emails, etc.) to establish trust and show your support. You can do this through a contact form on your website, a chatbot or live chat conversation, or an email.

80% of high school students said live chat on a college's website is helpful in learning more about a school.

- RNL 2021 E-Expectations Report

Navigating an online curriculum can be just as confusing as showing up to campus in the fall. An early relationship can build a foundation that increases retention and improves graduation rates.

2. Build an online community

Online students may not be interested in campus safety, school programs, or college activities, but that doesn’t mean they don’t crave a sense of community. Make sure students are aware of any resources available to them, whether it's virtual academic support, a hub to communicate with other students, or career services.

Many online schools offer a student portal or knowledge base where students can share viewpoints, ask questions, and chat with people going through the same experience.

Online communities allow students to:

  • Help one another by sharing insights into a specific class or academic program
  • Provide helpful tips for career placement and progression based on their own experiences
  • Create a sense of belonging when they might otherwise feel disconnected

Consider establishing an online community and, if one already exists, make sure it’s being monitored to address your students’ concerns.

3. Relate to the non-traditional student experience

If your staff is reaching out to online students, can they fully identify with them? Were they once a student of an online or community college, juggling classes with a full-time career? Do they have any experience studying remotely? If not, that's ok - but they need to be cognizant of how different an online experience is.

Now more than ever, students of all backgrounds are embracing remote learning. It's important that your team understands the benefits and potential challenges of not being in the classroom or on campus. Online students want to feel confident about their decisions and to know that they're supported just as much as a traditional student, so the more you can relate to them, the better.

4. Offer a better website experience

Is a potential student going to choose another school because that institution offers a better website experience? These days, it shouldn't take longer than a few minutes for students to find necessary information like tuition costs and application status. Current students also need to be able to locate the info they need to reach their goals, like how to register for classes or apply for graduation.

More than 1 in 4 prospective students will leave a college's website if they're frustrated with the user experience.

- RNL 2021 E-Expectations Report

Take your website for a test drive to see what kinds of hoops students have to go through to get information. Also, consider how a chatbot can guide students while saving your staff valuable time.

5. Cater to the student's communication preferences

The most important thing to remember when trying to understand the characteristics of online students is that there is no all-encompassing set of traits. You cannot use blanket statements to describe an entire demographic of students. Because every student is different, the best way to reach online students is with an omnichannel approach.

Some students will respond to emails, while other students prefer to be texted. Reaching out to a student via text to follow up on emails increases your chances of engagement. And, more often than not, students appreciate being nudged in the right direction. 

A growing segment

The number of students looking to study remotely has dramatically increased, especially in the past year. As higher ed institutions make adjustments to adapt to social and economic trends and more and more students seek affordable educational opportunities, the number of online students will grow. That will only increase the competition to reach online students.

Taking steps now to improve the way your school communicates with online and community college students will give you a distinct advantage.

omnichannel communication


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