A Mentor of One’s Own: Offline Support for Online Students

Mateja Klaric always dreamed of studying at an American university. A native of Slovenia, Klaric cherished open discourse and the freedom to pursue a life and career that the university system affords.

She traveled to the U.S. to begin taking placement tests at a local community college, hoping to remain in the U.S. and eventually complete her bachelor’s degree in Psychology. A friend of Klaric’s recommended that she consider ASU Online, and after researching and comparing options, Klaric made her decision easily. “Considering my lifestyle, ASU Online was perfect for me, especially because I was working full-time and across the world from many classmates,” she said.

But just three credits away from graduating, disaster struck—Klaric lost her job and her home.

Devastated, she reached out to her coach at ASU’s Success Center with the news she would be unable to finish her degree. “I was so sad that I wasn't going to be able to finish,” Klaric said. “I could live with losing my home, but not with losing my degree and all the time I had already invested.”

Green hills of Slovenia

A few days later she received news that would change the course of her life. Her success coach, James, was able to secure an ASU scholarship that—given her excellent grades and unique situation—would allow her to finish her degree. “I just cried,” she said. “It was like a miracle.”

What’s remarkable, though, is Klaric’s tenacity, and the tenacity of thousands of online students who are working every day to earn their degrees online despite what life has thrown their way. For many of these students, they must find the time to study while working full or part-time, raising kids or caring for a family member, and many are doing so without the resources offered by most traditional ground schools.

Over the past 20 years, it is estimated that more than 31 million students have attained some college credit but no degree. What happened? “The truth is, for many of these students it’s not about their aptitude or their desire to earn a degree,” said Phil Regier, Arizona State University Dean for Educational Initiatives and CEO of EdPlus. “Something happened, life got in the way – and if we’re not finding a way to help these students earn a degree in a way that fits into their life and providing the resources they need to succeed, it’s a huge waste of human capital.”

Providing an academic advisor is a first step, but universities that are providing coaches, many of whom are paired with a student throughout their entire educational journey to help students navigate life and logistical challenges, see the best student outcomes. Online students are often stepping back into school after many years and need that support and encouragement to feel at ease. These coaches later become a lifeline as students juggle life with studying and coursework.

“The number one reason students reach out to coaches is time management,” says Nancy Cervasio, Director of Online Student Success Initiatives. “Our coaches work with students to help find a balance, to carve out the time they need to keep their degrees on track.”

Cervasio oversees a total of 60 success coaches at the ASU Online Success Center who provide not only educational tools, but a passionate support structure for students navigating the complicated process of earning a degree online. With 47 percent of the coaches graduating from ASU, they are also able to help online students understand the ASU experience and what it takes to be a successful student. The Success Center has helped ASU Online’s enrollment scale five-fold over the course of six years to accommodate now 27,000 online students, pairing each one with a personal coach. This personalized support is rare, and crucial, for online students.

“I think that there is a bit of distance when you’re an online student,” said ASU student Auryan Ratliff, “but the success coaches make you feel like you are part of the university through texting, emailing and calls. They provide what you need to be a good student.”

The coaches at the Success Center have a Bachelor’s degree or higher in fields such as education and counseling. They know the warning signs, and many know from firsthand experience the struggles students face. Taking a proactive approach by reaching out to students via text, chat and email based on specific behaviors and academic triggers observed in the digital classroom, they can quickly step in to ensure online students stay on the path to graduation.

It’s more than just an advisorship: long-lasting relationship are developed. Success coaches are the experts, the cheerleaders, the friends who help bolster confidence in their students. Take Reese Hann for example, a ASU Online student who was scared at the prospect of taking a public speaking course.

“I’ve learned it’s important to have these skills, but when I speak in public, I get really nervous,” said Hann. “I asked if [my success coach] could give me some resources on communications, and it wasn’t even an hour later that she got a list back to me.”

As part of this commitment, ASU Online has built an in-house team coaches, working in collaboration with other colleagues in Recruitment Services, Student Enrollment Services, Academic Advisement and Veterans Services to provide a highly-integrated student experience to a diverse population.

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