Pivotal Conversations: Online Universities and Underserved Student Populations

The online learning explosion has made it easier than ever to obtain a college degree. This means that first-generation students and students from underserved populations complete degrees in record numbers. To find out more about this trend, I decided to interview Pamela Toney, president of CSU Global, which serves as the online learning arm of Colorado State University. President Toney has the distinction of being a former first-generation college student and a college president in charge of ensuring positive student outcomes for all learners.

Q: How does online learning lead to success for first-generation and minority students?

Online learning programs, especially ones that are asynchronous, are particularly beneficial for first-generation and minority students. These students are often working full-time and/or multiple jobs and are contributing to multigenerational households. The ability to pursue their education and reach their academic goal from anywhere, any time, provides a level of flexibility and opportunity not offered when enrolled in a traditional brick-and-mortar campus program. Additionally, online campuses are able to provide a high-quality education more affordably and eliminate any campus facility fees, student fees, etc.

In 2021, more than one-fifth of CSU Global’s student population were first-generation learners, and 31% were from underrepresented populations – a 4% increase from the previous year. We’ve found that a combination of flexible schedules – both in terms of coursework and monthly start dates – and layered channels of support services have helped those students from falling through the cracks when barriers emerge in their lives.

Q: What are some of the benefits of online education for underrepresented populations?

While it is true that an online education may not be able to offer the same on-campus experiences as a traditional university, such as lunch in the student union or going to a football game, it does provide unique opportunities which enhance the classroom experience. An online campus that represents student experiences from across the world allows our students to engage with a wider range of people outside of their geographic and demographic parameters. This provides a more equitable sharing of experiences, expertise, and engagement through online classroom discussion boards, expanding students’ view of both the course subject matter and the world. In addition, smaller class sizes – no cavernous lecture halls – can facilitate better communication among peers. Access to instructors is broadened as well, with the ability to connect with them through email, phone, and virtual meetings (even on weekends).

Instructors at online universities are unique in their own right. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve been trained to facilitate and lead courses online, which results in a better online teaching and learning experience for our students. Additionally, they bring true industry expertise in the area they teach. This provides students – particularly first generation and underrepresented students who may not have access to the same professional networking opportunities – with real world examples of how they will apply their knowledge, tools, and technologies in that particular field.

Q: What types of support services do online institutions need to offer in order to help first-generation and minority students succeed?

Support and access are essential when it comes to narrowing the equity gap in education. First and foremost, students should be assigned a dedicated student success counselor who will guide them through their journey, from day one through graduation. Additionally, at an online university, students don’t have to navigate bus schedules, inconvenient office hours, and writing centers that close just as students are sitting down to tackle their coursework for the week. It is critical that students have 24/7 access to tech support, robust library resources, and a writing center, as well as disability support services and tutoring sessions. Beyond academic support, services that support a student outside of the classroom enable their success as well. For example, CSU Global students benefit from a Student Assistance Program, which provides free, confidential help 24/7, including live and online counseling, legal and financial services, daily living and concierge services, child/elder/pet care, and more.

Q: How can online institutions help guide first-generation students or others who may be at risk for not graduating?

Online universities need to have a number of support services enabled to help guide students who are at-risk of not graduating, including first-generation students who may need additional guidance. A major factor in improving first-generation graduation rates is the flexibility offered by an asynchronous learning environment. This, along with a generous late homework policy, the ability to meet with faculty and staff at a time that works best for the student, and the aforementioned tutoring, writing, and library resources.

Designated student success teams are beneficial to provide a single point of contact for students across a variety of areas. Trained student success counselors can advise students through every step of their student journey, including developing educational plans to satisfy degree requirements, coaching to navigate roadblocks, evaluating progress, and identifying resources (career services, wellness, learning, etc.). Finally, online institutions should provide career services for all students and alumni at every step of their career exploration and job search. This includes career assessments, resume and cover letter development, building a LinkedIn profile, finding and applying for job and internship opportunities, interview preparation, and negotiating a job offer. We’ve found that these services all facilitate a positive environment for students to seek support on their own terms, rather than having to schedule appointments or find time to visit a physical office, fostering success in the classroom and beyond.

Q: How is an online education beneficial to the modern learner, working adults who also have other life commitments?

When working adults decide to advance their education, they often need to consider how they’ll balance work, family, and other personal commitments. Additionally, they have expectations around their program’s curriculum. Will it ensure success beyond the classroom? Will it provide lifelong learning and earning potential? They want to know it will deliver real value for their tuition dollars.

From a practical perspective, online, asynchronous courses allow a student to schedule their focus time for reading and homework around their schedule, whether that is 6 a.m. or 9 p.m. or anywhere else it fits in their day. Regardless of their age or stage in life, online students can still be part of a rigorous degree program without putting the rest of their life on hold. Need to drive the kids to soccer and get dinner on the table? Need to take a month off as you start a new job or care for an ill family member? Online programs like those at CSU Global allow flexible start dates that aren’t tied to semesterly or quarterly starts, so these hiccups in life won’t derail their educational progress. Additionally, it is important that online institutions offer career-relevant degree programs that provide clear pathways to industry jobs for its nontraditional learners.

Q: What role should online institutions like CSU Global continue to play in providing quality higher education?

We have a responsibility to continue setting new standards for learning in a virtual environment. As more first-generation and underrepresented students are turning toward online education as a stepping stone in their careers, and as COVID-19 drives more students online, higher education institutions must adapt to stay relevant. Today’s students demand high-quality, accredited courses that will help advance their careers – on their own terms and timeline. We need to remain agile as we move forward, creating new programs, courses, and support services that will help students reach their full potential. Further, with the increase in the hybrid work environment – either fully or partially remote – online students are gaining the virtual collaboration and time management skills that many employers are now looking for in their workforce.

Our overarching goal as a higher educational institution is to prepare students to be successful in the workforce. This involves ensuring that we have an industry-relevant curriculum, quality instructors, and support services that prepare and support our students on their educational and professional journey. Their success is ultimately our success.

Well, that concludes my interview with President Toney. I would like to thank her for consenting to this interview and for her contributions to the field of education and humanity in general.


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