Most universities offer full suites of support services to help students transition to college, manage their studies, and plan for their futures. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WICHE), these programs are vital to learner success. While online students benefit just as much from these programs as their campus-based peers, they rarely access them the same way: logistics and online learners’ unique needs require a different approach. The following guide highlights the types of support services that may be available to online students, how schools typically deliver them, and why they are so important.
Colleges prioritize student support services when designing online courses and degree programs. According to a survey conducted by the Blackboard Institute, more than 75 percent of online program directors link support programs with student success, and nearly 90 percent say they improve college access and outcomes. Drexel University Online President Susan Aldridge, Ph.D., addressed the student service-success relationship during an interview with OnlineEducation.com.
“As we know from experience, students are more likely to succeed when they feel connected to a supportive, inclusive, and academically challenging learning environment. This is particularly true when it comes to online students, who do not have the benefit of a physical campus community,” said Dr. Aldridge. “So in providing them with an online learning experience that not only meets, but exceeds their expectations, we have to create and nurture a virtual campus community that incorporates the support services and systems they need to be successful throughout the student lifecycle – from enrollment to graduation and beyond.”
Other experts who spoke with OnlineEducation.com tend to agree. Dr. Stacey Ludwig-Johnson, associate provost for Academic Services at Western Governors University (WGU), also discussed the importance of student support programs.
“It goes without saying that online programs meet the needs of students that can’t attend on-campus courses due to schedules, location, or even disability,” Dr. Ludwig-Johnson said. “The convenience of online learning, coupled with the opportunity for proactive support from faculty and advisors, really encourages student success.”
Most online colleges offer a range of admissions, academic, financial aid, and many other types of student services. According to Dr. Ludwig-Johnson, these programs are designed to be “delivered remotely and conveniently for the student.” Doing so requires colleges to adapt services to online students’ unique circumstances, including time and geographical barriers. Dr. Patrick Shannon, associate professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Social Work, suggests this personalization may give online students an advantage over those attending campus-based programs.
“We discovered pretty quickly that online students probably receive more personalized attention than students in … traditional face-to-face programs do,” Mr. Shannon told OnlineEducation.com. “In the [online] classroom, much of the interaction is student-student and student to instructor as opposed to an instructor in the front addressing all students at once. Online teaching and advising actually require more contact time than a traditional classroom-only model does.”
The following section explains some of the ways colleges deliver this personal support to students enrolled in online degree programs.
Designing online courses and degree programs takes time and experimentation at even the largest and most prestigious universities. The same is true for online student support services. Colleges must consider online learners’ goals and lifestyle factors, which often vary distinctly from those of campus-based learners. For example, online students are more likely to require evening and weekend support. How colleges deliver these services to online students is another important concern. Dr. Ludwig-Johnson suggests online colleges take great strides to ensure students can access these programs however, and whenever, they need them.
“We know that our students need access to services at a time that is convenient given their busy schedule, typically during extended hours and weekends, and via the delivery method that fits their needs at the moment,” Dr. Ludwig-Johnson told OnlineEducation.com. “We do our best to provide self-service options for students, but we also have a Student Support Center that is available for calls and responds to student emails and requests.”
Online schools frequently adopt technical solutions to bridge distance between students and advisors. Some colleges deliver support in real time; others use more passive methods of communication. Round-the-clock access is also increasingly common. The following are just some of the tools colleges use to support online students:
Real-Time Support Tools
Passive Support Tools
|Toll-free numbers||Online forms|
|Web conferencing||Forums and discussion boards|
|Virtual meeting rooms||Social media|
These technologies allow colleges to provide a broad range of support services to online students.
Many online colleges offer a comprehensive suite of student support services to assist learners through all stages of their college careers, from pre-admissions support to post-graduate alumni services. Some of the most common programs are described below, though options and delivery methods vary by school and by program. Online students are encouraged to contact their institutions for a complete list of available services.
Admissions specialists help students make informed choices about online schools and degree programs. These advisors offer pre-admissions support to prospective students; admitted students can ask them about orientations, course registration, and any additional steps they must complete before beginning coursework. Admissions support programs offer guidance in the following areas:
Each year online colleges find new ways to work with and support these students. Many universities pair prospective learners with dedicated admissions specialists. A growing number of online programs also host information sessions and orientations online.
Financial Aid Advising
Students must consider how they will pay for college early in the admissions process. Those enrolled in accredited online degree programs through state authorized institutions may be eligible to apply for state or federal financial aid, though funding is never guaranteed. Some schools and third-party sources offer additional grants and scholarships for certain student groups, especially active military service members.
Financial aid advisors guide online students through what can seem like a complicated process. They help them identify relevant financial aid programs, eligibility requirements, and application procedures. Students usually contact financial aid advisors by phone, web chat, or email. Self-service solutions are also common. Among them:
Financial aid support services are often available throughout a student’s studies as funding, eligibility requirements, and options change.
Academic advisors support students selecting academic majors, specialty tracks, and courses. They also help online students set goals and find the most efficient path to meeting them. Online learners communicate with advisors by phone, online chats, and virtual meeting rooms. Emails and web forms are available during holidays, weekends, and off-hours.
According to Kenneth Chapman, VP of Market Strategy at Desire2Learn (D2), colleges have begun to integrate interactive support tools directly within the online learning environment. These features offer immediate, support 24 hours a day, and let students explore all their options time and again.
“Colleges are starting to adopt these technologies quite quickly,” Mr. Chapman told OnlineEducation.com in an interview. “[D2L has] seen a great deal use tools such as … Degree Compass, which predicts which courses a student should take in a degree program to maximize his or her chances of completing their degree on time, with relevant courses and a high GPA.”
Academic Support Services
Academic advising services help students set learning goals; academic support services help them meet them. Some online students turn to technical solutions for immediate academic support. Leading LMS platforms now use data, assessment modules, and adaptive learning technologies to assess and personalize learning. Many offer simulations and games to reinforce specific skills, concepts, and course material.
While studies suggest these tools deliver better results in less time, many online colleges still provide traditional academic support services like virtual office hours, one-on-one tutoring, and Web-based math and reading centers. For example, WGU pairs online students with dedicated faculty mentors who follow their progress and offer personalized support. These advisors help students establish good learning habits and, in some cases, guide them through difficult coursework.
According to Dr. Ludwig-Johnson, mentors also help students identify and overcome challenges:
“Our mentoring program [partners] a student with an individual faculty mentor from orientation to graduation,” Dr. Ludwig-Johnson told OnlineEducation.com. “When the student’s needs fall outside of the academic support relationship, the mentor and student can turn to internal resources or external resources.”
For online students, technical problems are more than a nuisance: learners unable to access computers or navigate digital learning platforms cannot progress in their programs. Technical support services minimize this risk. Colleges may publish online troubleshooting guides and tutorials, or let students tour LMSes. Some online programs allow learners to borrow or rent laptops. In some cases students can keep their computers so long as they meet certain requirements.
Online colleges may also extend one-on-one technical support to students who need expert advice. They may be able to connect with live support specialists by phone or web chat. Some specialists are available day and night. If not, students can submit off-hour support tickets by form or email. Students who want to learn more about these and other technical support services can usually do so online.
College libraries do more than lend books. Librarians teach students how to access digital journals and other research tools, or perform detailed searches on students’ behalf. Many university librarians also manage various technologies and instruct students and faculty in their use. Online colleges offer many of these same services, but through different channels. Students log into virtual libraries to access digital books, e-textbooks, databases, and streaming media. Research consultations and instructional webinars are also common.
Colleges design online library support services to be convenient and easy to use. Online students attending George Washington University, for example, can access support by phone, email, and web chat through a special program called “Ask a Librarian.” They can schedule research consultations through the same means. The University’s library also helps online learners find books and resources through local colleges or, when necessary, ship them directly to online students.
Online library services vary by college. Students who cannot access the right information through these programs can look to open education resources, often called OERs, which are available freely on the Web.
Networking programs are exceeding valuable throughout, and beyond, online degree programs. They offer students a chance to connect with and seek support from fellow learners, professional mentors and, eventually, an alumni community bound by institutions and their traditions. Online colleges recognize the benefits of these networking programs so, according to Dr. Ludwig-Johnson, ensure students can access them.
“Online colleges use social and professional networking to connect prospective students, enrolled students, and alumni to build learning and support communities,” Dr. Ludwig-Johnson told OnlineEducation.com. “The communities often center around courses, programs, colleges, and special interest groups.”
Student networking can be particularly beneficial to online learners who cannot connect with peers through campus-based courses and activities. Some may never see or speak with classmates directly, especially when enrolled in self-directed degree programs. Virtual networking services offer these students a sense of community. The competency-based College for America (CfA) is one such program. CfA Chief Learning Architect Yvonne Simon told OnlineEducation.com CfA’s peer networking program helps students succeed socially and academically.
“On average, these students complete their degree twice as quickly as students who don’t join, and are much more likely to persist to degree completion,” said Ms. Simon. They achieve these by “asking questions; forming project teams, study and special interest groups; sharing challenges and successes; sharing tips; and providing encouragement.”
Online students can reach out to their institutions’ technology, student affairs, and alumni affairs offices to research networking services available to them. Professional organizations and networking websites may offer additional support.
Military service members can face logistical challenges that make campus-based education unmanageable. They might be stationed far away, transferred in the middle of their studies, or have unpredictable schedules. Online degree programs are often flexible enough to transcend these barriers, which can make them an attractive option for members of the Armed Forces considering civilian education. Most colleges offer military- and veteran-specific student support programs to better serve those who serve their countries.
Military and veteran student support services can take many forms. Many online schools have teams of experts who counsel veterans and service members in a range of civilian education benefits—like Tuition Assistance, scholarships, and statewide programs—and how use them wisely. Some institutions offer qualifying military students special grants, scholarships, and tuition benefits, or programs that convert military training units into college credit. Counseling and on-base outreach programs are also common.
Note that military and veteran students can find additional support through government resources, such as on-base education centers and the Department of Veteran Affairs. The American Council of Education (ACE) can also review service members’ records to recommend certain military training and activities for college credit. Thousands of colleges accept ACE credits for transfer, including both online and campus-based programs. Students should review the organization’s ACE Credit College and University Network to identify these military-friendly institutions.
Personal Support Services
For years, colleges have offered students personal services through on-campus health and counseling centers, but the sensitive nature of this support made it difficult to deliver online. This is changing as online learning platforms integrate ever more sophisticated security features to verify students’ identities and protect private information. These innovations allow colleges to safely deliver personal support services to online learners. Strategic partnerships with health and counseling organizations expand students’ options.
For example, WGU is among the growing number of online colleges that offer personal student support services to online learners. According to Dr. Ludwig-Johnson, WGU partnered with an organization called WellConnect that allows students to contact personal counselors, day or night, using a toll-free hotline. Additional programs support new parents and offer consultation services for students seeking legal or financial management advice.
As with other student services, the nature and accessibility of personal support programs can change from one online school to the next. Students can contact colleges or visit them online to learn more.
Internship, Apprenticeships, and Field or Clinical Placement Services
Internships and other practical placements offer students a chance to practice and refine skills learned through coursework. In disciplines like teaching, nursing, and social work, they are often mandatory. Students may also participate in voluntary internships to gain experience and build their resumes. These placements can be especially helpful for online students, who may not have access to labs and other on-site resources.
Many online programs offer placement services to help students identify potential positions and employers near their home communities. Online career and internship databases connect students and employers. For example, Rutgers University offers an online internship and co-op course for academic credit. Dr. James F. Groves, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Virginia who helped establish a program in which students earn engineering degrees online while serving apprenticeships, told OnlineEducation.com that the institution helps students find positions, but cannot guarantee placement.
“I always tell students that securing an apprenticeship is a collaborative venture,” said Dr. Groves. “We will point them in the right direction and assist them during the process, but ultimately they need to prepare resumes and cover letters, learn about companies, and pursue opportunities.”
Prospective students considering online degree programs that require on-site practical training should contact an admissions advisor to learn if and how students secure placements.
Career services can support online students in a number of different ways: they might help learners identify and research potential careers; build their resumes; prepare for interviews; or find positions as they near graduation. Among the most common types of career services:
These services hold tremendous benefits for students, online or otherwise. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Ludwig-Johnson, most students wait too long to take advantage of career support programs, costing themselves precious time.
“It has been our experience that students wait until the last term of their program to seek career support… when we could have helped them build their professional network, research possible careers and potential employers, and build experience in terms of internships or volunteer work along the way,” said Dr. Ludwig-Johnson.
Colleges typically list available career services online for students researching prospective programs. Students who do not research career services before enrolling in online degree programs can contact colleges’ career services offices to learn more about their options.
Alumni Support Services
Colleges and universities may invest heavily in programs and technologies that help online learners feel connected with their peers despite their distance. It is not unusual for this support to extend beyond graduation. Alumni support can deliver social, networking, and professional support. For example, some online colleges offer social groups and networking tools specifically for alumni. They might also provide post-graduate career support, like digital portfolios and career boards, or access to discounted memberships to professional organizations.
One of the newest alumni support trends to emerge is start-up incubation for rising innovators and entrepreneurs. These services go well beyond more traditional career and professional services. Start-up programs help graduates find mentors and collaborate with others in their field. They can also provide dedicated spaces where alumni can prototype their ideas. Online students unable to travel to on-campus start-up centers may still be eligible for other types of support. They can contact colleges’ alumni services offices to clarify their options.
Expert Advice: How to Maximize Student Support Services
Student support services can help online students succeed academically, socially, and professionally. While some advising and mentorship services are integrated into programs, others require students to be more proactive in attaining them. Dr. Ludwig-Johnson advises online students to identify support options early on.
“I would recommend that students look for a dedicated advising or mentoring program so they know where to turn when they need help,” Dr. Ludwig-Johnson told OnlineEducation.com. “I would also suggest that students ask if the other support services, including the IT service desk, are available extended hours and weekends when most online students are studying and might need help navigating the system or dealing with access issues.”
It is important to note that while support services may improve learning outcomes, success requires personal investment as well. CfA’s Yvonne Simon told OnlineEducation.com that students should develop relationships with not only their mentors, but also themselves.
“Invest in the relationship with your [advisor] and yourself,” said Ms. Simon. “You might think spending time on yourself, and reflecting on who you are, is not important or a waste of time. Developing a trusting relationship with your [advisor] is not only worthwhile for completing your degree, but has personal and professional benefits as well.”
"Guidelines for Creating Students Services Online," Pat Shea, Sue Armitage, Cooperative for Educational Technologies, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education,
"Effective Practices Snapshot: Student Services for Online Learners," The Blackboard Institute
"Higher Education for Service Members," Military OneSource, U.S. Department of Defense
"College Credit for Military Service," American Council for Education
WellConnect, Western Governors University