The At-Risk Students' Guide to Finishing an Online Degree, Part 1

Posted on April 12, 2013


Ready for a shock? We're fans of online education. To us, there is no better way to mold your pursuit of a degree to fit the schedule of your life, and not the other way around. It puts access to schools, courses, and professors within your reach that you never would have had otherwise. In many cases it makes an affordable undertaking out of what's become an outrageously costly endeavor.

However, just like traditional campuses, online schools are not without their share of students who drop out. Online students drop out at a rate that is 15-20% higher than students who attend class in person. All things being equal, this would seem to imply that in-person education is the option that ensures success more readily.

But as is almost always the case in life, all things are not equal, particularly when it comes to education while working. Fewer than 40% of online undergraduates go to school full-time, and according to a recent survey, the "average" online student works full-time (compared to just 20% of college students as a whole who do so.

Because of their busy schedules, these online students with job and families face risks that can put their degree completion on the line. If you count yourself among their number, check out these tips and tools for guaranteeing you see the quest through to the end.

Risk 1: You get fired, fail class, or both.

The most obvious risk of being a degree-seeking online student with a job is that you'll spread yourself too thin and succeed at nothing. Dedicate too much night time to studying and you'll be too tired to do your job well the next day. Try to put in too many hours at work and your grades will slip. It's definitely a balancing act, and one that every student will have to experiment with on his or her own to find the perfect ratio of time spent.

How you can overcome it:

  • Communicate with your professor and boss: The worst thing you can do is wait until the day a major project is due to frantically email your professor with excuses for why yours isn't ready. Reach out to your professor at the start of the semester and let him or her know that you also work or have family obligations that may conflict with schoolwork. Individual profs may be willing to work with you, but not if you wait until the last minute.

    Scott Mason is the program manager in the Office of Distance Education at the University of Houston. He says, "If students tell their employers and professors that they're working and going to school, it might make them more sympathetic to their issues or concerns, especially if asking for an extension for an assignment or test. However, students shouldn't expect to receive special treatment. Most of their fellow classmates are probably doing the same thing."

  • Combine the two: Most businesses give employees some kind of lunch break or other rest breaks during their work period. Don't waste that time gossiping with coworkers or reading a magazine; spend that time cracking the books or knocking out a little homework. If you're asking, "What work breaks?", you need to look into whether your employer is breaking state law by not giving you a rest period. Although there is no federal law requiring employers to give lunch or other breaks, several states mandate short breaks for every four hours worked.
  • Don't take on too much: Jillian Reading is an academic advisor in the School of Public Health & Health Professions at the University of Buffalo. Although she said working while going to school is beneficial not just for the economic aspect but for the experience a student can gain, Reading cautioned against trying to work more than 20 hours per week. She said students in certain majors might want to consider leaving work entirely to focus on their degree, if possible.

    "Students who are pursuing science-based degrees that require extensive laboratory components come immediately to mind," she said, "or those students who are looking to apply to competitive graduate or professional programs and need extremely high GPAs in their coursework."

Tools to use:

  • Time management apps: If you're like two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds, you own a smartphone. With the planning and calendar apps of an iPhone or Android at your side, there's no excuse for ever letting an assignment fall through the cracks. Without a smartphone, a good old-fashioned calendar or personal planner work just as well. The key is to write everything down somewhere.

    Don't worry about buying a calendar app; free options abound. For Android, My Class Schedule, School Helper, and Yasp have very strong ratings by users. For iPhones (and Android), Trello is a great app for individual or group project task scheduling. CalenMob, a reliable version of the Google Calendar for Apple, is also a solid choice.

  • Efficiency tools: Reading gave us two special recommendations of productivity apps that she finds particularly helpful to all her students. The first is Evernote for taking and storing notes and class documents that can be easily accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection. She also likes iAnnotatePDF for highlighting or taking notes on lecture slides and other PDF documents. We would add to those a flashcard app like Flashcards+ and a dictionary app.

Risk 2: Your health suffers.

In any situation where a person is under significant pressure to perform, is faced with a seemingly never-ending list of tasks that need addressing, and is constantly stressed, maintaining good health is going to be an issue. The harmful effects of stress — high blood pressure, depression, muscle pain, loss of sex drive — are well-documented, but stress is not the only risk factor.

Being constantly on the go encourages people to eat fast food, which we don't even need to mention is usually a health no-no. It may also mean cutting back on sleep, which would be bad enough if stress wasn't already causing you sleep problems. Sleep is vital to overall health but particularly knowledge retention, so those long nights you're studying may be doing more harm than good when it comes to remembering information.

In short, working online students run the risk of damaging their health to the point they get sick and can neither work nor study. And, really, is education even worth it if you have to damage your health in the process?

How you can overcome it:

  • Exercise: If your job requires you to be up on your feet moving around, thank your lucky stars; sitting at a desk for both work and school is far too much inactivity. If that's your situation, look for every opportunity to move your body. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get your textbooks on tape and walk around while you listen to them. Even just standing at your desk instead of sitting could literally save your life. The general rule of 30 minutes of exercise per day still applies.
  • Don't sacrifice your sleep: Contrary to the longstanding 8-hour rule, the optimum amount of sleep for health and productivity seems to be between 6.5-7.5 hours. But what's more important than sleep quantity is sleep quality. Good quality sleep comes from having a restful environment, exercising regularly (another good reason to move around), cutting out caffeine, and going to bed at the same time each night.
  • Watch what you eat: We understand the temptation of fast or packaged food: it's generally cheap, it's easy to pack and eat on the go, and it's usually pretty tasty. But since you're going to such an effort to improve your life by earning a degree, why set yourself back by not taking care of your health? Or think of it this way: junk food may be cheap, but an angioplasty is not.

    Instead of throwing a candy bar in your backpack, bring along a banana (which cost about $0.15 each) or an apple (about $0.50) and some peanut butter, which will give you protein and fiber. For an easy dinner, throw a russet potato (about $0.33) in the oven for an hour while you study. Simple tips like these are all over the Internet; all you really need is the determination to eat better.

Tools to use:

  • Health apps: It's never been easier to find an app that streamlines your efforts to get healthy and lets you have fun doing it. Take your workouts social with apps like Fitocracy and Zombies, Run!. Apps like Pocket Yoga and Workout Trainer teach you hundreds of exercises that you can do without going to a gym. For tips and recipes for healthy eating, apps like Fooducate have you covered, and Food Planner helps you save time at the grocery store.
  • Stress and sleep apps: Sometimes you have to make time to just zone out, even if it's only for a few moments. In those instances, a meditation app like Self can work wonders. Or you can play a mindless game of slingshotting birds through space. For sleep help, try Relax Melodies to drift off and Sleep as Android to track your sleep and wake you up gently.
  • Study area supplies: Setting up a healthy, ergonomic study area is extremely important for online students. For your mouse, we're fans of the Logitech Trackman to stave off carpal tunnel. Microsoft's 4000 is a good, inexpensive ergonomic keyboard. Whatever chair you use should give you good back support and let your knees bend at a 90-degree angle. Refer to OSHA's guide to computer workstations for more ergonomic tips.

Risk 3: You lose your motivation.

At a certain point in your journey toward an online degree, there is a risk that your motivation will begin to wane. You may forget why you wanted to get that degree in the first place and begin to come at your schoolwork halfheartedly. You may think you can just power through on sheer stubbornness, but you shouldn't underestimate the power of motivation in learning.

For example, a new study by researchers at the Educational Testing Service entitled "Motivation Matters: Measuring Learning Outcomes in Higher Education" found personal motivation enables students to perform "significantly and consistently" better on tests than their peers. Researchers from Reed College found in 2004 that college roommates who are studious can have "strong effects" on academic performance. This means that for online students, especially ones with families, the risk of distraction from "roommates" harming your grades might be a concern.

How you can overcome it:

  • Remember why you're there: Sure, you're making money at your current job, but what are you missing out on without a degree? Well, on average over a lifetime, about $1 million for those with just a high school diploma. You're also ensuring your job security. During the recession, jobless rates were inversely proportionate to education levels: 7% for bachelor's holders, 11% for associate degree holders, and 16% for those with just a high school education.
  • Get involved: Connecting with your fellow students is a crucial part of the college experience. Commiserating with them over your shared problems understanding a certain lesson will help you realize you're not going it alone. Reading suggests interacting with students who've successfully taken classes while working to get their tips and tricks.
  • Set goals and reward yourself: We mentioned not trying to take on too much, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't set reasonable study or grade goals for yourself. Make sure they're realistic, otherwise you'll burn yourself out. When you reach your goals, celebrate by spending an evening with family or watching a movie with friends or whatever it is you do to recharge.

Tools to use:

  • Class forums: Many individual online courses will have class forums that are required for class participation grades; most of them have an area dedicated to homework questions and off-topic discussions. Make use of the former if you need it, and the latter early and often. Find out who your classmates are, what they do, how old they are, what they think about the class. That's what college is all about.
  • Motivational apps: There really is an app for everything. Lift lets you set any kind of goal, from ceasing to bite your fingernails to passing the GMAT, and get support from your friends along the way. For motivational sayings on the go, use Inspirational Quotes. For movie pep talks, just fire up the YouTube app and queue up the Braveheart speech.
  • Lean on family: While they can be a distraction, family members are a built-in support team you'd be foolish to overlook. According to Reading, "I recommend sitting down with family members and explaining what you are undertaking and how much work/commitment it will require. Family members who are supportive of student efforts are key." Being up-front and honest may also help you avoid arousing resentment in them over how much time you are spending studying and working.

There's nothing easy about getting a degree, online or otherwise, and for students with time constraints it's even harder. Knowing what you're up against is half the battle of making it all the way through to graduation day.