5 keys to reaching adult students online

A look at how the University of Memphis is making its LiFE program successful

In a public-private partnership that could signal the future of higher education, the University of Memphis has teamed up with FedEx Express on a new initiative that will give more than 11,000 FedEx employees the opportunity to earn a tuition-free degree from UofM Global, the university’s online learning program.

All employees who work at the FedEx Memphis World Hub are eligible to participate in the “Learning inspired by FedEx” (LiFE) program as long as they remain in good academic standing. Employees can choose from among more than 60 undergraduate and graduate degree programs offered by UofM Global, and FedEx will pay the full cost of tuition.

The program is a “win-win-win” for everyone involved, advocates say. Employees have an opportunity to advance their education (and possibly their careers), while the company inspires loyalty among its workers, which should result in higher retention—and the university adds a major new source of tuition revenue.

Richard Irwin, dean of UofM Global, says he believes the future of higher education depends on how well colleges and universities can serve adult students who are returning to school. Toward this end, UofM Global offers a number of resources designed specifically to support returning adult students and ensure their success—and the LiFE program can serve as a model for other institutions to follow.

Here are five key lessons that higher-ed leaders can take from the program as they aim to serve returning adults students at their own institutions more effectively online.

1. Assess students’ readiness for online learning.
Before adult students begin their courses, UofM Global measures their readiness for online learning through an initiative called Smart Start. It’s a home-grown assessment that takes 20 to 30 minutes to complete, and it asks students about their technical knowledge, what type of device they’ll be using, whether they have Wi-Fi access at home, and when they plan to complete their course work, among other questions.

The goal is to make sure students have the tools they’ll need to succeed in an online learning environment, Irwin explains—and to provide interventions for students who might lack the capacity to be successful.

For instance, “If students don’t have a device of their own, or they need to travel to a location where they can get Wi-Fi, we have a bank of iPads and remote hotspots donated by FedEx that we can lend to them,” he says.

2. Give students the skills they’ll need for success.
Another initiative designed to prepare adult students more effectively for online learning is an onboarding process called the Prep Academy. Designed specifically for students in the LiFE program, it’s a series of four initial courses that students can work through at their own pace, covering topics such as academic strategies, time management, self-discipline, and other skills needed for success.

The Prep Academy courses are required for adult students with no prior experience taking college-level courses online. When students complete the program, they are granted admission into their chosen course of study with 12 credit hours under their belt.

“Students are demonstrating they can do college-level work, putting into practice all the skills we think they’ll need in a low-risk environment,” says Irwin. He adds that UofM Global officials are looking at how they can replicate this program for all adult learners, not just those in the LiFE program.

3. Offer personalized coaching.
All LiFE participants are assigned a “success coach” who continually checks in with them throughout the duration of their online learning experience to nudge them along. “This is a pretty vulnerable student population, so we have created a high-touch environment to help them succeed.”

UofM Global assigns coaches to students based on the level of college experience they start out with. For instance, adults who have no prior college experience are given a coach who specializes in helping first-time college students, while those with at least 30 credit hours of college experience (but not a full degree) are coached by someone from the university’s transfer office, who has expertise in advising this particular student population.

4. Award credit for prior experience.
UofM Global officials review the FedEx training records of LiFE participants to see if they’ve undergone any training that can translate into credit for prior learning experience. In fact, the college recently awarded two FedEx employees 30 credit hours for prior training they received in leadership and project management, which moved them a whole year ahead in their degree program.

Awarding credit for prior experience is something the university takes pride in across all UofM Global programs, and it’s a key strategy for helping adult students finish faster. Last year, the university’s online branch saved more than 300 students at least $1 million in combined tuition expenses overall, Irwin says.

5. Bill corporate partners directly.
A final aspect of the LiFE program that contributes to its success is that there are no up-front costs to employees. All they have to do is sign up for online courses; the university bills FedEx directly for their tuition costs.

“That’s a game changer,” says Irwin. “It opens up opportunities for so many more people to participate.”

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