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Career Services

Serving Online Students: How Current Trends are Shaping the Approach for Leading Online Schools

For nontraditional students pursuing higher education while balancing work, family, or both, support can be key to student success.  University […]

For nontraditional students pursuing higher education while balancing work, family, or both, support can be key to student success. 

University of Maryland Global Campus is a leading online university with 88,500+ students and 280,000 alumni worldwide. Building virtual support systems that meet the needs of that online community is top of mind for Cathy Francois, UMGC’s Director of Career Services. In a recent presentation to fellow higher education leaders, Francois chatted with PeopleGrove’s CEO Dawn Hiles about the trends emerging among online students today, and how UMGC in particular is addressing the acute needs of their students and alumni. 

The following is a summary of the presentation, which can alternatively be watched in full and on-demand here.

Takeaway #1
Retention Is Just As Important as Enrollment 

Online schools in particular spend high amounts of money institutionally to enroll a student. What should be just as heavily emphasized, said Dawn Hiles, is retaining students once they’re enrolled. For online students, fostering connections is paramount. Whether through mentorship opportunities, peer interactions, or relationships with faculty, these connections are essential for student success. By creating opportunities for online students to build connections, institutions can help improve student success. 

To support their students through a variety of ways, UMGC utilizes CareerQuest, a student/alumni virtual community platform powered by PeopleGrove. Expanding on the importance of fostering student connections, Cathy Francois highlighted how CareerQuest supports this trend by enabling students to connect with mentors and peers regardless of their location. With a large student population of service members around the globe, UMGC uses CareerQuest to facilitate career exploration and networking, ensuring that even military spouses in remote areas can build meaningful connections. 

A first-generation graduate herself, Francois also emphasized the importance of students seeing themselves in their mentors, which CareerQuest makes possible by allowing students to connect with others who share their identities and career aspirations. Additionally, UMGC leverages CareerQuest to foster a sense of community among its students. The platform enables students to connect with alumni and faculty mentors, participate in career planning assignments, and engage in virtual career fairs and webinars. These activities help students find their "fit" and build a network of support, which is essential for their retention and success at UMGC.


Takeaway #2
Online Students Have Higher Expectations than Traditional Students 

Online students have high expectations, particularly regarding responsiveness and support. Hiles highlighted research showing that 61% of online students enrolled at the first institution that contacted them, often expecting a response within hours of their first inquiry. These high expectations continue throughout their educational journey.

Francois reinforced this by noting the diverse and nontraditional nature of UMGC's student body, which includes working adults and military service members who have limited time. CareerQuest addresses their high expectations by providing 24/7 access to career services and resources, allowing students to get the support they need on their own schedule. This accessibility is crucial for meeting the needs of students who may not have the flexibility to engage during traditional hours.

Takeaway #3
Institutions Must Do More to Help Students Navigate Campus Services

Another significant challenge is helping online students navigate campus services. Unlike their on-campus counterparts, online students often struggle to find resources like tutoring or mental health support. Simplifying access to these services is crucial for their success.

Francois discussed how CareerQuest serves as a centralized hub for career services, community building, and self-service tools. This one-stop-shop approach helps students navigate the complex higher education ecosystem by providing easy access to a wide range of resources. Francois also mentioned the introduction of a badging program for faculty and staff, ensuring they are well-informed about CareerQuest and can effectively guide students to the appropriate resources.

Takeaway #4
Online Students Are Laser-focused on Post-Graduation Outcomes 

Ensuring students are prepared for their next steps post-graduation is critical. This includes providing robust career services and support to help students transition into the workforce and achieve their career goals.

Francois highlighted the lifelong career support offered by UMGC through CareerQuest. The platform provides continuous access to career resources, networking opportunities, and alumni connections, ensuring that graduates can receive support at any stage of their career. Francois also mentioned the importance of leveraging alumni networks for mentoring and job opportunities, which is facilitated by CareerQuest's extensive database and user-friendly interface.

The on-demand video version of this presentation from UMGC’s Director of Career Services Cathy Francois offers valuable guidance for other institutions seeking to enhance their support for online students and drive better retention, engagement, and post-graduation outcomes

Watch the presentation