The StraighterLine Approach to Caring for Online Students at Scale

The StraighterLine Approach to Caring for Online Students at Scale
Beth Dumbauld

Adult college students are typically under a lot of pressure: they have jobs, family obligations, and other demands on their time, attention, and finances.

Self-paced online courses are becoming an increasingly valuable part of higher education for many such learners because they don’t require a student to be in a classroom — physical or virtual — at a certain time. This flexibility is vital for students who need a degree or certificate but aren’t able to attend classes on a regular schedule. Students learn from home, in their own time, whenever they can, without the pressure of a professor waiting on them to turn in work or participate in a class discussion.

The downside of self-led courses, however, is that there is no professor to ask for help when students don’t understand the course. This is a problem for students and institutions alike; when students don’t get the support they need, they are at risk to struggle and drop out. Graduation rates are a problem across higher education; according to the most recent numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), just 56% of 4-year students and 34% of 2-year students are graduating from college in six years. Colleges are attempting to meet this challenge by creating new student pathways, offering individualized support systems, and working with local employers.

But what about the students enrolled in self-paced courses, who don’t have face-to-face access to a professor, and may only need a course or two as a prerequisite or to complete a degree or certification? To succeed while learning remotely, these students require strong, remote student support that provides individualized assistance. Providing that support may seem daunting for colleges and other course providers, especially if they are serving thousands to tens of thousands of remote students. How can personalized student support be provided at scale?

StraighterLine is a student success and college readiness company offering affordable online self-paced college courses. In the last year, the company served more than 30,000 students. The reason StraighterLine can successfully serve so many remote students? Caring, proactive student support.

Students thrive when advisors care

A middle school teacher who had been teaching for 30 years was enrolled in StraighterLine and she was having trouble.

Despite the fact that she doesn’t teach the subject, the teacher was required by her state to take a chemistry course in order to remain certified. It was a difficult course for her, but she worked hard and got decent grades, until the final exam, which she failed. It was devastating; she didn’t think she could bring herself to retake the final.

That’s when she contacted StraighterLine student support via live chat.

Student advisor Lisa Mertz was on the receiving end of that chat.

“She was very worried about taking the test again,” said Mertz. “She basically said, ‘I’m scared I’m going to fail.’”

Mertz sprang into action, offering encouragement and practical advice. She told the teacher to check her study guide, review her materials and also, to give herself some credit.

“She came so close before. She did know the material, and it showed in her earlier tests,” Mertz said. “I told her, ‘You’re so close.’”

In many cases, Mertz gets calls from students who need help preparing for an exam, want help preparing for a course or even just need to know where to begin with a course. In those cases, she tells them to review their study guides, listens to their worries, answers questions, and refers them to StraighterLine’s tutoring service.

“Then I normally walk the student through a first topic,” said Mertz. “Especially if it's a new student, I take them right through the subject, and I show them the different parts of the lesson, and how they can get to each section. I even lead them to their first exam and show them how to move around the website. It just makes it easier for them.”

That can take 20 minutes, but sometimes, however, students need more.

Mertz, like all StraighterLine student advisors, often goes above and beyond her duties for students who contact her seeking help. She’s advocated for a student with StraighterLine’s academic team when there was a misunderstanding about an assignment, for example. Recently, Mertz helped a student who’d never used YouTube by walking them through an assignment, guiding them through the process of uploading a video and uploading the assignment to their course.

One of the most important things Mertz and the other student advisors do, however, is to take a whole-student approach to student support. When a student calls in with a specific question, Mertz checks their whole profile to see if there are other areas where she can help.

For example, when students call to request transcripts, Mertz checks their account to see if the student is still active. If they are, she helps them cancel their StraighterLine membership so they aren’t rebilled.

“You need to be able to listen and really actively look at a student’s profile, because sometimes a student’s concerns don’t come out the first time, or an important question isn’t asked,” said Mertz. “We just take the time and listen, and don't push anyone off the phone. If we can cover all the bases for each student as much as possible, they can move on freely to completing their course and getting their transfer credit.”

Scaling individualized support

For most high-volume support centers, efficiency is a top priority. According to one report, the average handle time (AHT) for call centers is 6 minutes and 3 seconds. The shorter the call, the more callers an agent can handle. StraighterLine’s priority, however, is not the length of the call — student advisors’ top priority is making sure students are happy, and well supported. Mertz has spent as long as 40 minutes on the phone with a student.

“They just wanted to be heard,” she said.

Mertz’s attention to detail and student-by-student approach to student care is a hallmark of StraighterLine’s student support philosophy.

Research shows students do best when they feel cared for, student advisors like Mertz are trained in a culture of caring. StraighterLine has no call quotas and doesn’t cap the time student advisers spend on the phone with students. They’re evaluated not on the volume of calls they take, but on student satisfaction and on the length of time between a student raising an issue and that issue being resolved.

“It’s just about serving the student completely and proactively,” says Joseph Thibault, StraighterLine’s vice president of student support & academic services.

Advisors act as an ombudsman for the students, listening to their concerns and advocating for them as needed. To do this, every student advisor is given the ability and autonomy to help students. They’re able to give students as much time as they need to ensure that any student’s problem is solved.

“I know we’ve had even longer calls than the one that Lisa had,” said Thibault.

All student advisors have the same role and the same capabilities, says Thibault. There is no escalation path or “transferring calls to a manager.” Whenever a student calls in, all student advisors are empowered to help them with any issue they have.

In order to provide this sort of individual care to tens of thousands of students who enroll in StraighterLine courses during the year, StraighterLine adheres to a strict code of professionalism. Student advisors’ responsibilities include:

  • Maintaining a caring attitude toward the students
  • Addressing students’ issues as soon as they are raised
  • Proactively reading through a student’s profile to see if any issues the student hasn’t mentioned need to be addressed
  • Thoroughly documenting each student interaction, so that all advisors have access to the best possible information on all students.

While this last step may seem basic, documenting calls is an extremely important part of scaling support. When calls are thoroughly documented, every advisor can help answer any student’s questions, and can access information on that student — even if it’s been years since they last called in.

StraighterLine’s proactive, individualized approach to support is critical for helping large numbers of students; scanning a student’s profile for potential problems and fixing them early helps prevent bigger problems from developing later. It also helps prepare them for their academic future; student advisors routinely spend extra time coaching students through the hurdles they’ll face in higher education and being a resource for those students.

“We have a lot of first time online students who may not be familiar at all with the educational experience they can expect when they matriculate at a degree-granting program,” Thibault said.

Students don’t learn in a vacuum

The day after Mertz got the call from the middle school teacher with the chemistry final, she came to work to find a pleasant surprise. The teacher, who had been so worried about failing the exam a second time, had retaken the test. She’d passed.

Mertz also found a message from the teacher.

“I got an email from her. She just thanked me for doing my job and being there,” she said. “She said ‘I knew there was a reason I came over your chat.’”

According to internal research, 91 percent of the students who took courses with StraighterLine in 2019 would recommend the service to a friend. This reflects not only the quality of the courses but the quality of student care as well.

“I love StraighterLine and wish I could have taken more classes with them,” said Michaela, a StraighterLine student. “The student advisors at StraighterLine talked me through the requirements of securing a proctor for testing and told me exactly what I had to do.”

Students don’t learn in a vacuum; they often need support to get them through a tough course, or to help them work through their worries — especially if they’re new to online learning.

“In a lot of cases, we have students who don’t have to contact us. And that’s because we have done a lot of work over the last decade to make the path as smooth as possible, so a student has a clean and clear path through from start to finish,” said Thibault. “Now for the students who do run into some friction, it’s just a matter of making sure that those students get taken care of.”

StraighterLine is a student success and college readiness company that delivers affordable online courses. To learn how to partner with us, visit: partners.straighterline.com

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