Arkansas State University System

Using Online Programming to Increase Transfers to Universities

This university system created a vigorous online program that mainly serves nontraditional and underrepresented students, particularly individuals who are seeking to transfer to a four-year institution and who live and work hours away from a university.

Arkansas State University System

In keeping with its decadeslong commitment to reaching—and teaching—students through various modalities from correspondence courses to remote instruction, Arkansas State University System (ASUS) has been offering a robust online degree program, A-State Online, since 2008. This program mainly targets adult learners who find it difficult to transfer from two-year institutions to four-year universities and who live and work far from a higher education institution, and students who are first generation and from underrepresented groups. Its success is evidenced mainly through its evolving flexibility in filling in the various gaps that prevent or discourage individuals from pursuing a degree or completing their postsecondary education.

ASUS officials reviewed student feedback and state data to discern the unique challenges it had to address in order to support this underserved student population. In the past, ASUS had encouraged students to transfer from one of its two-year institutions to one of the system’s four-year universities with limited success—and those numbers have been dropping. State education data revealed that 300,000 Arkansans attended some form of college or university but did not graduate. Students who wanted to transfer described a frustrating and cumbersome process. Without knowledge of the required courses for a given major or program, many pointed to courses that did not transfer and the loss of credits, resulting in the pursuit of a degree becoming more expensive. In addition, a review of education transfer data found that the typical distance students were willing to commute to attend a four-year institution was 30 minutes or less. Commuting longer was not an option for them, much less moving to a residential campus, especially if these students were working or supporting a family. Outside of a handful of smaller cities, the population in Arkansas is scattered across areas that require a 45-minute to two-hour drive to reach a four-year institution.

ASUS officials realized its solution had to begin with an understanding that these students’ most valued asset was their time. Through A-State Online, ASUS focused on providing a smooth transition for nontraditional and underrepresented students with support on the back end through various course offerings, flexible schedules, and streamlined processes. Giving online students the best value for their money is just as crucial as being efficient with their time. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of tuition for online students is not discounted, nor are students coming with scholarships in hand. Although just over half of A-State Online undergraduates were eligible for Pell Grants, many are paying their own way, and this is especially so in the online graduate programs.

A-State Online’s holistic approach toward this growing population has been slowly turning the tide against the anticipated economic success of states such as Arkansas. Nationwide, 34% of Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 24% of Arkansans attain a degree. According to 2021 statistics, only 7% of the students enrolled at Arkansas’ 14 public two-year colleges transferred to a four-year institution. With a historically low degree attainment rate and poor community college transfer rates in Arkansas, A-State Online has become an important tool in reversing this trend by offering adult learners a modality that works within their constraints.

The Methodology

A-State Online emerged from a partnership between ASUS and its two-year institutions that wanted to provide opportunities for their graduates to leverage their associate degrees into bachelor’s degrees. After reviewing the data and student feedback, ASUS created A-State Online with simplified processes, flexible schedules, academic supports, and numerous course offerings to attract nontraditional and underrepresented students. The online program includes an admissions and transfer process that is easy and hassle-free. Once a student is admitted and has completed all documents, university officials advise them and then provide them with their financial aid within three days. Restricting this process to just three days is critical because 80% of students enroll at the institution they are accepted to first. In addition, ASUS created transfer agreements with all 22 two-year institutions in Arkansas, a memorandum of understanding that explains to students the required courses for a given program at A-State Online as they plan where to transfer.

To increase retention rates, system officials structured its online programming around these three strategies:

  • Shorter terms and fewer classes: Instead of managing four to six classes over the traditional 15-week semester, students work on one or two classes every five to seven weeks, making it easier for them to juggle work, family, and school.
  • Academic assistants: Academic assistants work at the direction of the lead professor of the course when communicating with students. They monitor and encourage students, as well as serve as extra liaisons for advising and tutoring teams. Having an academic assistant and an instructor helps students navigate the course navigation, thereby contributing to their academic success.
  • Online tutoring: Writing and math tutoring programs are offered in synchronous and asynchronous sessions. The tutors not only provide academic support, but they also collaborate with the academic assistants to help struggling learners.

These strategies have helped nontraditional and underrepresented students manage their academic course loads at their own pace as they choose from well over 100 programs available online.

As A-State Online has grown, so have its services. Because mental health has been highlighted as a need, mental health counselors are being added. Also, a career services unit was established to help students improve their interview and resumé-writing skills, a demonstration of ASUS’ commitment to the students’ efforts to move up their career and secure employment. ASUS wants to serve those 300,000 people mentioned earlier who do not have a four-year degree by providing them with the positive experience they need to persist, graduate, and succeed.

A-State Online offers numerous programs at the undergraduate, graduate, post-graduate, and certificate levels, and it’s always looking for ways to expand. The program’s online program manager, who handles marketing and recruiting, meets with various academic departments based on the current and potential market demand for careers in fields related to their majors and/or programs. A-State Online then works with the department if they agree to offer an online program by marketing it through advertisements, billboards, and social media. Through the combined efforts of A-State Online, its online program manager, and the academic departments, the majors and/or programs are promoted and supported. With a growing portfolio of online undergraduate programs across a wide variety of fields, the opportunities for adult learners to earn a degree through the flexibility of this modality is proving successful.

The Impact

The impact of A-State Online is not only indicated by its enrollment figures but also by the demographics of its student population. Domestic enrollment more than doubled from 358% in spring 2015 to 767% in spring 2023. In 2018, A-State Online first-generation undergraduate transfer enrollment was 469 students; in 2022, this number jumped to 720, a 53.5% increase in four years. Since fall 2018, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, A-State Online has also increased its Black population by 50% and tripled its Hispanic population. Today, a quarter of all undergraduate female students in the online program are Black or Hispanic. A further breakdown of A-State Online’s student community is as follows:

  • 31 is the average age of an A-State Online’s 1,738 undergraduate.
  • 52% identify themselves as a minority.
  • 73% are female.
  • 30.74% of the female online undergraduate students identify as a minority (21.12% Black or African American, 4.89% Hispanic or Latinx, and 4.65% as two or more races).
  • 21.41% of online males identify as minority (12.85% as Black or African American, 5.35% as Hispanic or Latinx, and 3.21% two or more races).

A-State Online has put over 2,000 highly qualified people into the workforce who can help improve the economy of the state and improve the quality of life overall.

The success of A-State Online is measured through enrollment, retention, and graduation numbers. They are tracked every semester and every year—here’s where you are, here’s where you were, here’s where you can improve—and shared with each impacted department. Enrollment and graduation figures are tracked in a more straightforward manner, but the retention rate is measured differently. Because A-State Online’s population is 98% transfer students, the retention rate is calculated based on whether the program retained them from fall to spring and then spring to summer. In addition, in the online environment, students may “step out,” meaning they take a break for a few weeks, so A-State Online calculates by semester and year.

Other factors determine the importance of A-State Online to its participating students. The program measures how many students use the additional services, such as the writing and math tutoring. It also gathers feedback regarding the students’ satisfaction with the online program and services. Using all of this information, A-State Online takes steps to reevaluate its programming and improve.

Key Takeaways

For an online program to be successful, it’s key to have buy-in and transparency with the faculty, because some faculty members may not prefer online instruction over in-class instruction. University officials should collaborate with faculty members to determine the structure and supports essential to creating impactful online courses. Faculty members also should be encouraged to see online programming as a service to a population that otherwise would not receive that education.

Despite the debate and conflict over on-campus enrollment and online enrollment, it’s important to point out and emphasize that people served in an online platform allow the institution to address its first action priority, equalizing access to increase postsecondary value. ASUS serves a large population of underrepresented students through A-State Online, making this online experience a big value to not only the students but the community and workforce at large.

Lastly, if an institution is considering an online program like A-State Online, they should go all in. Once the branding for an online program is lost, it’s difficult to get it back.

“Doing A-State Online has totally helped me pursue my dream in music full time. It’s really interesting the amount of travel, the amount of time that I have to dedicate to music. It’s like, you know, when the day is all over, I can come back, and I can do my schoolwork online. And honestly, it keeps things a little bit interesting that I get to do all of these different incredible things. And A-State Online has made that possible.”

Marybeth Byrd, American Idol

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