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Decoding the Strategies to Support Student Persistence in Higher Ed

  • 31 August, 2023
  • Reading Time: 5 mins

Digital learning has ushered in a new era of student engagement and opportunity. As a consequence, online learning is becoming more popular with the maturity of social and educational technologies.

Despite the massive growth, the persistence rates of online courses are significantly low compared to those offered in person. Online learners struggle to complete their courses and termination is the leading problem encountered in many colleges which is a foremost challenge for online education administrators/instructors. Only about 15% of Open Universities students leave with degrees or other qualifications, indicating a meager persistence rate among students taking online courses.

A group of students discussing around a laptop

Challenges to Student Persistence in Digital Learning

1. Time dedication and study load expectations

With digital learning, students often have more flexibility in managing their time, which can be both a blessing and a challenge. On one hand, flexibility allows students to balance their studies with other commitments, such as work or family.

On the other hand, it can lead to issues of time management and procrastination. Without the structure of traditional in-person classes, students might struggle to allocate sufficient time for their coursework, resulting in falling behind and potentially dropping out. The lack of a fixed schedule can make it harder for students to prioritize their studies amidst competing demands on their time.

2. Transition Difficulties and Adaptation

Technical challenges, such as unfamiliarity with digital platforms or lack of access to reliable internet, can hinder engagement and learning. Additionally, not all students possess the self-discipline and motivation needed for successful online learning. They might miss the face-to-face interactions with peers and instructors that provide motivation and a sense of community.

According to a study by the Babson Survey Group, only 28 percent of academic leaders say that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.

3. Health and Anxiety

The isolation that can come with digital learning might negatively impact students’ mental health. The lack of social interactions and physical presence on campus can contribute to feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Balancing coursework with personal well-being becomes even more challenging when students are learning remotely, as they might find it harder to access university support services or establish healthy routines.

4. Failing Courses

Students might struggle with online exams or assignments due to technical issues or concerns about cheating. The absence of in-person supervision during assessments can compromise the integrity of evaluation processes. Moreover, failing a course in a digital environment can be demotivating and frustrating. The lack of immediate feedback or the inability to have direct interactions with instructors to address concerns might hinder students’ ability to catch up or improve their performance.

A girl studying on a laptop in a library.

Strategies to Boost Student Persistence in Higher Ed

In order to tackle these challenges educational institutions must adapt their strategies to create an environment that not only embraces this change but also empowers students to persist and excel in the digital realm. Let us delve into five pivotal strategies through which higher education can bolster student persistence in the realm of digital learning –

1. Cultivating a Strong Sense of Virtual Community

Institutions can organize virtual orientation programs to facilitate student integration into the digital learning environment. Encouraging participation in online discussions, forums, and virtual social events promotes student interaction and reduces feelings of isolation.

For Example: Arizona State University’s “Global Freshman Academy” offers online orientation modules that guide students through expectations and resources, fostering a sense of belonging, and enhancing persistence.

2. Providing Specialized Academic Support

Virtual tutoring centers offer real-time assistance, improving student success rates. Studies show that students who utilize online tutoring services are more likely to pass their courses. These centers create accessible avenues for students to seek help, making academic support more personalized and convenient. Also prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in digital learning environments is vital as inclusive practices ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed regardless of their background.

3. Personalized Advising and Early Intervention

Institutions can provide personalized virtual advising sessions, ensuring that students receive guidance tailored to their academic goals. A survey by Inside Higher Ed revealed that students who report being required to meet just once with their adviser (519 of the 3,004 total respondents) appear to benefit from this. Digital platforms also allow institutions to monitor students’ progress closely and identify those who may be struggling. By utilizing predictive analytics, institutions can intervene early and offer targeted support, thereby reducing dropout rates.

4. Addressing Financial Concerns via Digital Platforms

Online financial aid services streamline the application process and increase access to funding. Digital scholarship portals, like the one at the University of Maryland, connect students with opportunities, making education more financially feasible. By addressing financial barriers, institutions encourage students to persist in their studies.

5. Prioritizing Wellness and Mental Health Online

Offering virtual wellness programs, including mindfulness sessions and stress management resources, contributes to a healthier online learning experience. Virtual counseling services play a critical role in supporting student’s mental well-being. Offering 24/7 online mental health support, such as the “CAPS After Hours” program at the University of Michigan, ensures that students have access to help when they need it.


Higher education institutions have a crucial role in enhancing student persistence through digital learning. Acknowledging these strategies grounded in research and supported by concrete data, pave the way for a robust and successful digital learning environment that empowers students to thrive in the complex landscape of online higher education. As educational technology continues to evolve, these insights will serve as cornerstones for sustained student success and engagement.


Kathleen Sestak

Kathleen leverages over 20 years of sales leadership to drive growth in the Higher Education markets. Known for her data-driven storytelling and strategic account expansion, she collaborates closely with cross-functional teams to exceed revenue goals. Passionate about delivering value and constantly learning, Kathleen brings innovative solutions and insights that readers will eagerly anticipate.

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