Nearly every department on every college campus in America grapples with the same three questions: How do we attract students – and once we have them, how do we retain them and ensure they graduate?
Boise State’s online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN-BS) program in the College of Health Sciences seems to have found the answer to at least a few of those questions. While the online degree program is less than a decade old, it boasts retention rates consistently within 80 percent with a graduation rate last year of 72 percent.
“These numbers are especially striking when compared nationally to other online RN-BS degree programs, which boast a graduate rate of around 40 percent,” said Marilyn O’Mallon, associate director of the RN-BS program of study in the School of Nursing.
The program’s faculty and staff attribute success of the online program to its proactive customer service model that responds quickly to students’ individual needs, solicits regular feedback on processes and from instructors, and an exhaustive outreach campaign unparalleled by most online programs of study.
Boise State’s online RN-BS program was launched online in 2008 in response to a national call by Institute of Medicine to increase the number of professional registered nurses with a bachelor’s degree to 80 percent by the year 2020. In line with this goal, Boise State’s School of Nursing is celebrating more than 1,000 RNs earning their bachelor’s degree online.
When Boise State’s program went online, the School of Nursing team was tasked with figuring out how to give virtual students the same level of attention, support, community and camaraderie that on-campus students in the program receive. Maura Rasmussen, manager of RN-BS student enrollment and advisement services within the School of Nursing, said that her background in customer service helped define the program to be responsive to student needs.
“We solicit student and faculty feedback on a continuum because we’re using collected data to constantly improve our processes at all times,” Rasmussen said.
The strategic feedback loop promotes quality education, clearer communication, camaraderie, better retention rates and faculty/student satisfaction with online teaching and learning.
“Our outreach is a little like coaching, a little like mentoring and a little like quality assurance,” explained Betty Miller, manager of online faculty. “We’ve found that when our faculty engagement is high, they pass that on to their students.”
Since 2011, the program has experienced a double-digit growth in faculty and has enjoyed 100 percent retention among faculty they’ve chosen to continue working with.
On top of soliciting feedback from students and faculty, and evaluating processes ever semester, faculty and staff in the RN-BS program constantly show students that they’re working as advocates in their best interests. This includes shouldering many of the larger, university processes that students normally would have to navigate through.
“We try and cut out bureaucracy for students as much as possible so they can concentrate on learning,” explained Candice Johnson, an academic advisor with the RN-BS program. Johnson helps students work with the registrar’s office and figure out what core classes they might need to take to complete their bachelor’s degree. “Their ability to navigate through university processes isn’t important to us, their success is. We take over those processes so they can concentrate on meeting their goals.”
Another innovative way the program has ensured students stay actively engaged is by instituting a calling campaign at the start of every semester (if students would rather opt out, they also have the option of completing an email survey), explained Sandi Gregory, student services coordinator. The calling campaign entails checking in with all 401 actively enrolled students mid-term every semester to find out how they’re doing, solicit feedback on accessibility, technology, their instructors, classes, and generally identify themes and challenges that students are wrestling with. Although this time-consuming task takes days to a week to complete, staffers say it’s a vital tool that allows them to respond with help for both students and instructors.
There is even a “lost souls” campaign for students who stop participating in the program.
“We track students who kind of melt away – who took a semester off and never came back, or those who drop out, or those who apply but never start,” Rasmussen said. “We email or call them, and we keep them active in our system for a year.”
This level of support for faculty and students has made the online RN-BS program a model on campus and nationally for what a successful online program can accomplish. Boise State’s RN-BS program team members are actively engaged in helping others across Boise State in the development of their own online programs of study.
“Our students are the best advocates for recruiting for our online programs of study,” O’Mallon said. “Whatever we can do to support our faculty and our students, we do. The RN-BS team recognizes the RN-BS program as a business model that promotes customer satisfaction to our consumers, our students. They’re paying for our service and we want to provide them with the best service we possibly can.”
“We try to be there for all of our students during their successes and difficult times,” Rasmussen said. As a caring and personal touch, the RN-BS team recognizes impactful events in students’ lives by sending out birthday cards, condolence cards and even graduation cards.