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Dawn Coder, The Pennsylvania State University, World Campus

Dawn Coder.jpgRetention is everyone’s job.  Or is it?  Infande (2013) believes it is.  In contrast, Dr. Weldon Jackson, Provost at Bowie State University, believes retention should be in a job description (Abdul-Alim, 2008).  The article advisors read or the institution in which they work will determine the answer to that question.  The Pennsylvania State University, World Campus, has specific goals to increase retention that are demonstrating how both Infande and Jackson may be correct. 

Academic advising at World Campus has created practices to assist with meeting retention goals that require collaboration with other departments.  However, in an online institution like World Campus, academic advisors are often the consistent person of contact while a student is pursuing educational goals.  Because of this relationship, the World Campus Academic Advising department includes retention practices in the job description for every academic advisor, making retention an academic advisor’s job requirement as well as an institutional effort.

World Campus Academic Advising Retention Practices

To assist with student persistence, the World Campus Academic Advising program meets identified areas of need for an adult online learner.  Intentional efforts to participate in meeting the identified needs assist with the overall retention initiatives at World Campus.

Outreach is key.  There are several proactive outreach campaigns that an academic advisor participates in to provide students an opportunity to give feedback.  Outreach includes soliciting feedback through an e-mail, questions during a webinar, through generated reports to target specific populations of students, a survey, or antidotal.

  • A student survey, which measures learning outcomes, is sent two times a year.
  • Academic reviews are completed for every registered student.
  • Group advising topics are offered, in real time, to assist students with common questions, such as “how do I register for courses.”
  • When natural disasters occur, academic advisors reach out to a student’s instructors to inform them of the situation.
  • The Outreach Analytics and Reporting department generates a report to identify students who have not or stopped participated in courses and an academic advisor reaches out to students to discuss options.
  • Academic advisors participate in social media to answer general questions or provide referrals to specific offices.

Partnering with others is essential.  There are several student-facing departments at World Campus that academic advisers will partner with to ensure students receive necessary resources and time-sensitive communication. Heldman (2008) writes “Whether it be registration deadline dates or details about study group meeting times, just providing information to students can make all the difference in helping them stay enrolled and eventually graduate.”

  • Academic advisors are copied each time a faculty member sends an early progress report to a student.
  • Academic advisors have a comprehensive e-mail and telephone communication plan throughout each semester to reach out to students to provide resources and support. Additionally, reports are used to inform academic advisors of students who may be at-risk and who may need additional contact.
  • Advisors refer students to resources, such as tutoring, videos on improving study skills and time management, and to developmental courses; trust is built between the academic advisor and the student which influences a student’s decision to remain at World Campus.
  • The academic advising department has partnered with consultants who reach out to students each semester to remind them to schedule courses and who make referrals to academic advisors as appropriate.

Students need to feel a sense of belonging (Schreiner, 2009).  Making an intentional effort, by providing opportunities for students to feel connected, will assist in student persistence. This is especially true for an online adult learner, who has more flexibility to transfer to another institution, compared to a residential student.

  • Many student clubs and organizations are offered for World Campus students. In most cases, an academic advisor is the advisor to the club or organization. Having an academic advisor, often the one consistent student contact, as the face of the club or organization helps students feel a strong connection to the university and provides familiarity.
  • A newly created Student Advisory Board has been created for World Campus students. Representatives from academic advising reviewed applications and assisted in the selection of the advisory group.

Online students need to identify barriers to learning at a distance.  World Campus academic advisers collaborate with academic support specialists to identify online learning barriers, as well as, to create and provide support resources.  All resources are provided virtually. Different mediums have been used to provide access to the resources, such as Adobe Connect, Skype, and Google Hangouts.

  • Academic advisors review an online readiness assessment with students to discuss areas that have been flagged as a barrier to online learning. Resources are recommended based on those flagged topic areas.
  • World Campus students have several resources available to assist with common barriers for online learners, such as orientation, technology help, remediation in math, a free course to prepare for college-level courses, and assistance from Tech Tutors. All resources are provided virtually from several different departments around World Campus.
  • Academic advisers host time-sensitive topic webinars to assist both current and new students. Most recently, there was a change in the university’s student information system. Academic advisers hosted several webinars to train students on how to use the new student information system. A common webinar provided each semester is “How to schedule courses.”

Online students need to know who to contact. Most online students do not have the option of walking into an office and asking for assistance because they are located in a different location from the institution.

  • World Campus academic advisors serve as the one consistent contact person for students. They assist students in navigating to the correct department or will provide a contact person for the student’s specific need.
  • The Outreach Analytics and Reporting department generates a report two weeks before each semester begins to identify any students who are not assigned an academic advisor and at that time one is assigned; the assigned academic advisor reaches out to the student with an introductory e-mail which includes the advisor’s contact information.
  • Ensuring there is one contact person for each department will decrease students’ frustration and give students the opportunity to get a question answered the first time. Academic advisors are familiar with the best contact person in each department and can make the best referral.
  • World Campus Academic Advising has a general phone line available to students from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. EST Monday through Thursday and 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Friday. Students who cannot get in touch with an assigned advisor can call the general advising phone line or can send an e-mail to the general advising account for assistance.

Knowledgeable academic advisors are a necessity.  Busy adult online learners need accurate answers in a timely manner. Transferring from one department to another can be a frustration for busy adult distance learners.

  • Academic advisors are cross-trained so students are not handed off to another person for a general question.
  • Adult learners (World Campus’s largest student demographic) studying at a distance are busy, so a fast answer about a general question allows for adult learners to spend more time on more important things, such as studying!
  • The World Campus academic advisors have foundational career counseling training to assist with exploring different majors. This goes a long way in building a relationship with students, thus making a strong connection for the student to the institution.

Academic advisors need to understand student experiences.  Collecting feedback from students who have dropped a course or withdrawn from the university can inform an academic advisor on how to improve messaging and on new resources to create to ensure a student understands class expectations.

  • A non-persistence survey is sent to students who drop a course or withdraw from a semester. Academic advisors are provided a summary report of the reasons a student has shared for dropping a course or withdrawing.
  • Common answers in the non-persistence survey have informed academic advisors in creating new messaging for students. Now, more often, when assisting a student with scheduling academic advisers will discuss the time dedication of a course, will refer a student to financial aid, and will discuss the rigor of taking a Penn State course. Those are the most common reasons provided from the survey.

Foundational courses need to be available to first-year students.  At times, adult learners studying at a distance have been out of the classroom or learning environment for many years.  Seats in specific foundational courses need to be available for those who have not participated in the learning environment for a period of time so that learners have a strong start and is set up for success.  

  • World Campus reserves seats in specific courses so academic advisors can ensure these students get a seat in their first semester. English is a foundational course used to prepare students for many other courses. Waiting to take a lower-level English course could create a barrier in persistence.
  • Course sequencing is very important, especially for an adult learner who has been out of the learning environment for several years. Academic advisers teach students how to identify pre-requisite courses, and discuss how to choose appropriate courses to take in the same semester. Academic advisers have detailed conversations when students share concerns on a specific topic. Two common courses an adult leaner has identified as difficult are Math and Writing. When a student shares a fear of math and writing, the academic adviser teaches the student how to identify a math and writing intensive course so they can be scheduled in different semesters. And, a discussion occurs to provide options on preparing for those courses.
  • Scheduling early can also set a student up for success. Adult learners have to prioritize all of their daily demands. It is easy to forget to schedule courses for a semester that will not begin in a few months. Academic advisers explain to students that waiting too long to schedule courses will cause a student to take a course that, potentially, will not be exactly what the student is interested in learning about. Part of retaining students is keeping them engaged and interested in the course content. Taking a course that meets requirements, but isn’t interesting to the student, may cause the student to question if this is the right program to continue in.

General efforts are important.  An important goal for World Campus Academic Advising is to support the academic advisors growth in the profession. As a Subject Matter Expert an increase in understanding valuable content and the ability to be flexible to meet student needs assists in persistence. These general efforts increase morale of a team which will directly link to better student service.

  • Academic advisors review and revise online resources and policies maintaining the most up-to-date information for students.
  • Different modes of communication are used for online learners. Academic advisers are open to communicating in a student’s preferred mode of delivery, whether that is through Skype, e-mail, Instant Messaging, or telephone.
  • Professional development participation is used to share best practices and identify necessary process changes to improve academic advising services.
  • Participating in discussions with other university academic advisors allow for idea generation and process improvements.
  • Leadership encourages a fluid academic advising program based on student needs. Academic advisers are involved in strategic planning for the World Campus Academic Advising program.

Although it is an academic advisor’s responsibility to participate in retention efforts, it is not possible without collaboration.  Nutt (2003) writes, “successful academic advising programs cannot be solely responsible for retention rates on a campus.” Sousa (2016) writes, “Since today’s incoming college students have more choices and challenges than ever when it comes to defining their college experience, stopping out or transferring has become commonplace.  Because of this, schools are finding it increasingly necessary to prioritize student retention efforts and to seek strategies that serve students more effectively.”  Analytics departments generate reports and surveys, outside consultants perform student outreach, student resource coordinators and marketing departments create resources, and purchased products help online learners identify barriers.  Prioritizing retention efforts in one person’s job description, with the collaboration of others, can assist in a retention program.

Sousa’s (2016) belief supports Dr. Jackson’s opinion that retention needs to be in a job description.  The importance of knowing which retention efforts are assisting with increasing an institution’s retention rate will inform decisions around future programming, department involvement, and job responsibilities.  Recommendations should be provided by someone who can track and analyze the data which is affecting the retention rate.  It can be everyone’s job, as shown from the information provided by World Campus Academic Advising’s practices; however, the key is to identify those efforts that are impacting an institution’s retention rate.  Fluidity in job responsibilities and support from all involved are key and will provide a greater success rate in a retention program regardless of the institution’s or individual’s philosophy.

Dawn Coder
Director of Academic Advising and Student Disability Services
The Pennsylvania State University, World Campus
[email protected]


Abdul-Alim, J. (2013, January 8). Institutions must invest in retention efforts, panel says. Retrieved from http://diverseeducation.com/article/50573/

Heldman, C. (2008, May). Building a student retention program – A challenge worth the effort. Retrieved from http://www.universitybusiness.com/article/building-student-retention-program-challenge-worth-effort

Infande, A. (2013, July 8). A dozen strategies for improving online student retention. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/a-dozen-strategies-for-improving-online-student-retention/

Nutt, C. L. (2003). Academic advising and student retention and persistence. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/tabid/3318/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/636/article.aspx

Schreiner, L. A. (2009). Linking student satisfaction and retention. Coralville, IA: Noel-Levitz, Inc. Retrieved from http://learn.ruffalonl.com/rs/395-EOG-977/images/LinkingStudentSatis0809.pdf

Sousa, T. (2016, September 9). Student retention is more important than ever [blog]. Retrieved from http://higheredlive.com/3-reasons-student-retention-is-more-important-than-ever/

Cite this article using APA style as: Coder, D. (2016, September). Retention efforts from an academic advising department. Academic Advising Today, 39(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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