Measuring and Improving Online Student Retention

Topics: Student Retention and Success, Online Education, Academic Affairs

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Research Questions

  • How do other institutions measure retention for online programs and account for for varying lengths of online programs? 
  • Against what calendars do other institutions measure completion of online programs? 
  • At what point in course progress do other institutions measure the baseline enrollment of a course? 
  • How do other institutions compare retention rates of online-only programs against retention rates of face-to-face courses and programs?
  • What factors beyond the quality of course (e.g., student services) affect improved retention in online programs at other institutions?


Online students frequently stop-out or transition out of programs because of financial strain or commitments to their families and jobs; consequently, measuring online student retention is particularly challenging.  This brief examines timelines against which institutions compare enrollment data when deriving retention rates.  Additionally, the report highlights discrepancies in retention rates across different student populations as well as factors affecting online retention rates (e.g., the date at which baseline enrollment is captured, metrics for determining good standing, and program characteristics that track students for academic success.)  Finally, strategies for improving online retention rates are also considered.

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