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Online Student Support Services
 A Best Practices Monograph


Supporting First Generation Online Students

Maricela Garcia
Director of Distance Education

South Texas College


First generation college students are the first in their families to go to college; neither of their parents have a college degree. When these students register for distance learning courses, they experience additional challenges than those encountered by on-campus first generation students. Characteristically, first generation online students do not starkly differ from on-campus first generation students, but the challenges they face are compounded for the online students, who often have limited if any access to student services and academic support.

Studies show that a primary variable for first generation students’ success is the degree to which their participation in higher education is influenced by family, work, and other “daily life” responsibilities. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement, CCSSE, is designed to help community colleges assess their progress toward key goals. Frequencies of the 2006 CCSSE reveal that first generation students throughout the country perceive an overwhelming support of their academic careers from their family (67.4%). A report released by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, First in My Family (2007) reveals trends of first generation students from 1971-2005. Report findings are similar to those in CCSSE: 47% of first generation students cited parental influence as a very important reason for attending college.

More first generation students also worked at least 20 hours per week their senior year of high school compared to non-first-generation students, and over half anticipated working to pay for college (HERI, 2007). First generation students indicated grants and scholarships (38.8%) and personal income and savings (40.2%) as major sources for paying their tuition in college. A majority of first generation student respondents were not married (36.4%), yet nearly half (42.9%) had children living with them. Respondents also indicated that working full-time (58.3%), caring for dependents (53.3%), and lack of finances (70.8%) were likely issues that would force their withdrawal from classes or their colleges. (CCSSE 2006)

The dichotomy exists that while participation in higher education is a priority for families without a history of higher education attendance, responsibilities related to work and family negatively influenced these students’ participation in higher education.

CCSSE data also reflects that student services such as academic advising (66.4%), financial aid advising (68.3%) and availability of computer labs (63.3%) as very important to first generation students (2006). In her article for Diverse Online, Shilpa Banerji discusses the HERI report, emphasizing first generation students’ dire need for assistance in navigating the admission and financial aid process. Assistance to get in the door is primary, but keeping them enrolled is crucial. Banjeri recommends a supportive environment and access to college-based support services. ( 2007).

The recommendation is even more important for first generation online students. “Institutional support and services dictate the success or failure of a distance education program. While individual departments and instructors must uphold their end, institutional mechanisms assume a highly significant role,” says Elizabeth Buchanan in her article, “Going the Extra Mile: Serving Distance Education Students” (2000). Adding the “distance” component to the challenges faced by first generation learners decreases their potential to succeed in an online class or program. These students face additional challenges including access to reliable internet service, skills to utilize online support services and/or software, and social/psychological skills to navigate the higher education system. A report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reveals the state’s drop rate in face-to-face community and technical college on-campus classes at 18% compared to 25% for distance learners. At universities, the contrast is smaller, 10% for face-to-face classes and 14% for community and technical colleges (Borcoman and Lemoine, 2007).

Many variables involved in the success of online students—family, job, and other personal responsibilities—are out of the hands of institutions, but navigating college systems, obtaining administrative information, and academic guidance are among the most “challenging obstacles, and often lead to the high attrition rates associated with distance learning. Institutions must take precautions to avoid such attrition, and ultimately, the collapse and failure of their distance programs” (Buchanan, 2000). Having identified the factors commonly important for the success of first generation and online students, institutions must take action to provide first generation online students avenues for accessing important college services—admissions, financial aid, advising, tutoring, career counseling, and job placement—and perhaps more importantly, to encourage student engagement with these services.

Among the first challenges these students face is navigating the system. They don’t have personal resources—people in their social circles—to guide them through institutional processes. They may not have skills to manage their learning; and their attentions are divided among their personal, work, and school responsibilities. While the same is true of many on-campus first generation students, the online student has the added challenge of being on campus for a limited time or not at all. Unless the institution makes services and its people available online, the first generation student is handicapped. Beyond making these services available is the challenge to engage the students—to make them active participants and users of the services.

Assigning Advocates

How can schools change the status-quo? The solution incorporates institutional members, processes, and technologies. Individuals critical to creating supporting environments for first generation online students include: admissions assistants, financial aid advisors, academic and/or faculty advisors, retention specialists, tutors, technical assistants, counselors, librarians, ombudspersons, book store representatives, and administration. Whether distance education departments are centralized or de-centralized, people and services must be available to these students.

First generation online students need advocates—not just someone in charge of answering an email or phone call, but people dedicated to improving their college experience. Who is responsible for providing assistance with registration, financial aid, academic advising, tutoring, technical support and the like? How and when are they available? Are these persons familiar with the profile of the first generation online student? Do they have resources available to provide online support, for recommending and/or changing internal processes to facilitate things for these learners—to be advocates for change? Do they have strategies for introducing students to college processes and teaching them to self- advocate?

Some institutions designate particular representatives from the various student services offices to provide support for their online learners—a highly commendable practice. But smaller institutions may be challenged to do this if they have few or singular staff assigned particular duties. Smaller colleges, and colleges with increasing first generation online student populations may find it necessary—and cost efficient—for whole departments in student services divisions to receive the cross-training necessary to provide these students assistance with their “level-one” questions. Online students especially, do not have the time to be passed from one person to another—on the phone, email, or otherwise—to get answers to their questions. Ultimately, institutions that insist on maintaining the status-quo “silo” model of service will have less-satisfied clients than those that share information across departments.

Administrative leaders—Vice-Presidents, Provosts, Deans and Directors of distance education programs are at once the advocates most removed from and closest to first generation online students. These individuals have access to data that informs necessary change in policy, procedure, and practice that impacts the success of first generation online students. It’s their responsibility to provide the vision and strategic direction for the evolution of the services institutions provide. Whether the colleges serve a few hundred students or tens of thousands, administrators must not lose sight of the details that impact students’ success while they work to further more global institutional goals. Collectively and individually, every first generation online student is a measure of their success.

Encouraging First Contacts

Fundamental to the success of every first generation online student is a positive first experience with the institution. Colleges must not underestimate the value of personal contact when providing support for online students. Knowledge-Base queries can be very useful for providing answers to FAQs and general questions, but students want to know they can talk to a human being if necessary. First generation students in particular will need the support and encouragement from people at the institution. They will need to feel that meeting their needs is important to the institution and know they are not alone just because they are not on campus.

Admissions assistants often are the first points of contact for this population, so it is critical that they have sufficient and up-to-date knowledge of institutional practice and procedure and of distance education department contacts and programs. These people not only assure students fill out applications appropriately, they represent the institution’s commitment to the students’ success.

Financial Aid advisors are frequently next in line to communicate with the first generation student population. Many institutions have students submit Financial Aid applications online, and first generation online students will face many of the same challenges with the application as their on-campus counterparts. Most frequently asked questions first generation students have revolve around tax return information:

• Why do you need my parents’ W-2 information?
• Are parents’ W-2’s necessary if I file independently?
• Will my parents be responsible for paying back my loans if I use their W-2 information?

Subsequent to completing the online application, first generation online students count on financial aid advisors to provide guidance with the rest of the financial aid application process—checking status and accepting awards. These tasks can be completed online, but first generation online students will need careful instruction about the process.

Academic Advisors and/or Retention Specialists must be available to work with this population. Like Admissions assistants, these individuals are sometimes the first point of contact with the institution. Their expertise in institutional practice and procedure is constantly being tested. Since students depend on their advice to determine courses they may or may not be able to take, these advisors must be well-versed in the constant changes to program and prerequisite requirements. They must also have up-to-date information about distance programs and services.

Maintaining Connections

Once the semester is underway, the focus for students shifts from navigating the system to making it through the semester. Retention Specialists, if they are available, play a key role in success for this population. Faculty count on them to contact students who lag behind class, and students count on them to be their advocates when they are having difficulties. These mediators have proven their worth as part of the distance education support team by advocating for students with faculty and by providing referrals to tutoring, counseling and other services colleges provide. Institutions with limited human capital can work with online faculty to provide advising and retention services for students. In some cases, having online faculty serve as advisors for online students may be productive because the occasion provides students additional time to get to know faculty and become more confident in their ability to accomplish their educational goals. For decades, mentoring has proven successful in retention efforts of minority and at-risk students. First generation online students share many attributes of those groups. E-mentoring can occur via phone, email, or web conference according to the institution’s capabilities.

Providing tutoring services to online learners is a challenge largely addressed by combining personal and technological solutions when students cannot visit a campus for assistance. Some institutions contract with tutoring provider services; others use their CMS, web-conferencing software, email or instant messaging to assist distance education students with their coursework. Solutions may only be as limited as the creativity of those charged with providing the service. Colleges must, however, provide at least as much access to tutoring services for their distance learners as they do for their on campus students.

Access to counseling services is another challenge many institutions are finding difficult to implement for online students. Some have certified their staff to provide online counseling, but there is strong resistance in the counseling community to that solution due to the delicate nature of the service. Many institutions provide counseling services to online students on a referral basis. Referrals are provided by faculty, advisors, or the students themselves. Distance Education departments should look to their counseling departments for the solution most appropriate for their population.

Technical support is likely the most frequently used of all services provided to online students; first generation online students are not an exception. As with tutoring services, technical support must be at least as available to online students as it is for on-campus students. Popular alternatives for providing technical support are: on-campus help for walk-ins, phone (some schools have toll-free numbers), email, and chat. Most institutions strive to provide technical support assistance for extended hours to accommodate their clients’ schedules. Some that serve very large distance learner populations have begun outsourcing technical support to providers that offer 24/7 services. While college size and organizational structure may vary, basics for technical support staff are constant:

• Staff must be well versed in basic trouble-shooting techniques;
• they must be customer service oriented; and
• they must be very patient, as often students will wait until they are at peak frustration before they call or ask for help.

This group is critical to the success of a first generation online students and any distance education program.

Librarians are key members of the instructional support team for first generation online learners, as most do not have the experience necessary to conduct research using online databases. At minimum, librarians should be available via phone, chat, and email. Students need online tutorials for accessing and using databases. Some schools provide simple screen-by-screen directions on .pdf. Others may opt to create flash-based tutorials for their students. Colleges getting started with these services do not have to develop these tools themselves; colleges or state libraries are often willing to share their materials. Ideally, students are provided more than one option to accommodate varying connectivity speeds.

Services of the Ombudsperson are likely among the least used by first generation online students. Too often these students are not aware of their rights or the steps they can take to protect them. As with advising services, Ombudspersons can take steps to educate these students and provide services via email, phone, after-hours appointments, or web conferences. At minimum, institutions should provide easily accessible links to information from the Ombudsperson on their websites and websites of their distance education departments.

Bookstore representatives are often the most easily forgotten of the essential advocates for first generation online learners. Many college bookstores have online components that allow students to buy their books online. Institutions serving first generation online students need to assure this population is provided direction and assistance when making their purchases online. Processes which are commonplace to experienced or non-first generation online students present new challenges for those without the personal resources or experience. In this, too, first generation online students will require special attention.

Career counselors and Job Placement officers are also part of the student services collective important to first generation online students. These students are less likely to have the personal resources or mentors to make them aware of career options. Career counselors and Job Placement officers can provide the tools to help first generation online students make educated decisions about the careers they elect to pursue. When appropriate, job placement officers can inform students about internships and other job opportunities in their fields of interest. These individuals can use email, chat, and webinars to inform students about the services they provide.

Learning to Learn

No institution can assure the success of a student if the student is not prepared to learn. First generation online students, like their on-campus counterparts face the challenge of learning how to learn. Put simply, many are not academically prepared for the rigors of college courses, and most do not go to college already knowing how to study (Engle, Bermeo, & O’Brien, 2006). A review of the attributes of successful college students indicates that self-regulation and self-efficacy are reliable predictors of academic success (Williams & Hellman, 2004). Hellman and Harbeck (1996) found that first generation college students lack in self-efficacy skills. Consequently, Williams & Hellman strongly suggest the need of an orientation to online learning, particularly for first generation students. In their comparison of self-regulatory differences between high achieving and low achieving students, Ley and Young (2001) indicated the need of four guiding principles for imbedding self-regulatory skill development in instruction:

1. Guide learners to prepare and structure an effective learning environment.
2. Organize instruction and activities to facilitate cognitive and metacognitive processes.
3. Use instructional goals and feedback to present student monitoring opportunities.
4. Provide learners with continuous evaluation information and occasions to self evaluate (pp. 94-95).

Managing the Process

Addressing Ley and Young’s (2001) principles requires a two-pronged approach:
• Prepare students to learn in the online environment (Principle 1).
• Provide faculty the guidance and tools necessary to develop courses (Principles 2-4).

The Principles of Good Practice or adaptations of them address Ley and Young’s Principles 2-4. Most colleges and universities use the Principles to inform their professional development for faculty to assure instructional activities in online courses will result in achievement of established learning outcomes. The Principles are also often used for development and practice of evaluation processes for online courses. The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) Effective Practices website has numerous resources to guide institutions to prepare faculty to teach online. They also have many resources that faculty can access to help them design better courses. A wealth of resources for distance education teaching and instructional design can also be found at The University of Wisconsin Distance Education Clearinghouse and the Instructional Technology Council (ITC) website.

We have yet to prescribe, however, a set of principles for preparing students to learn in the online environment. Colleges and universities throughout the country and the world have developed various options to address the need.

Among the strategies some colleges are implementing to address Ley and Young’s first recommendation is success tips such as those in the Illinois Online Network's Successful Student Profile or the Maryland Online Successful Online Students Checklist. The UW Distance Education Clearinghouse also lists many resources that provide students’ guidance on becoming successful online learners. More information on this topic can also be found on the ITC Reports and Abstracts and the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) Effective Practices website. The Distance Learner’s Guide companion website also has information that first generation online learners will find very helpful. More recently, Decade Consulting, LLC has developed an assessment called READI, Readiness for Education at a Distance Indicator—a diagnostic tool that assesses various personal attributes to determine student readiness for online learning.

Other strategies many universities and some colleges use to help students “prepare and structure and effective learning environment” (Ley and Young, 2001) are online orientations and online student centers. Many online orientations are primarily text-based, but can be incorporated with other activities to further engage students. Successful online orientations:

• Include guidelines or tutorials on study skills, effective time management, and assertiveness. Poor skills here are proven deterrents to success in online classes.
• Include student preparedness surveys. Students need to be aware of personal attributes necessary for success in this environment and of the technical knowledge necessary for their courses.
• Include only the most pertinent information about institutional processes; most students will not read through text if it takes too long to get to the information they need.
• Include checklists from Admissions, Financial Aid, Advising, and the Business Office. These should include lists of things to do and applicable deadlines.
• Include contact information for people at the various offices. These should be easily accessible and include days/times/locations of availability, phone numbers, and email addresses.

The Sloan Consortium has excellent resources for developing effective online orientations. Some institutions create complete websites for online student orientations while others prefer to host them in their course management systems. Often the determination depends on factors such as:
• the complexity of the project
o text or flash based
o passive or active engagement (reading only or interactive)
o student tracking required/not required
• the availability of staff to design and develop, and
• the timeline set for deployment of the final product.

SAC Online has a very good web based orientation for online students, and the University System of Georgia Student Online Readiness Tool, SORT, is widely recognized as an excellent instrument to help students determine whether online learning is a good fit for them.

Integrating Technology

In today’s world of constant connectivity, it is easy to forget that not all students will have the same degree of access to technology. First generation online students may not be able to afford broadband access, even if they happen to live in areas where it is readily available. Advocates must keep in mind that this population is not affluent or, in many cases, middle class. Degree of connectivity plays a very important role in the potential for first generation online students to succeed.

Undaunted by this challenge, some institutions use redundancy to reach students, creating CD/DVD versions of their online orientations and mailing them to students. This venture may prove a worthy investment for colleges whose students have difficulty obtaining reliable internet connections. Schools with very large enrollment can reduce the cost by filtering mailing lists every semester to include only new students until a new version of the orientation is developed.

Others have developed online student centers to provide more immediate access to resources. These include communication with advisors, tutors, and tech support via email, chat, or webinars.

None of these solutions is without its challenges, but all have proven effective to some degree. Integral to the success of these options is the continual commitment to collaboration by parties in instruction, student services, and technology services.

Those who work with orientation and/or course development must also assure that successful educational experiences for students are not impeded due to conflicts with technology. Links to required or necessary downloads must be available and easy to find.
The same is true of set-up directions or tutorials for using specialized software.

Faculty with media-rich courses should be encouraged to provide these materials on CD or DVD for students with slow internet connections. Those concerned about cost or the time necessary to duplicate materials every semester may consider having them catalogued in the library and requiring students to check out the materials.

Ultimately advocates of first generation online students must remember that technology is a tool we use to facilitate instruction and instructional support; it does not dictate how we facilitate instruction and instructional support.


We cannot and must not remove the human element from anything we do in support of first generation online students. The challenges they face are compounded by the nature of who they are and the mode by which they pursue their educational goals. This group requires detailed information on navigating college systems and on learning how to learn. We must build strong collaboratives within our institutions in support of this growing population and use student and bandwidth friendly technology to reach and engage them in the higher education culture. This population can succeed.


The Distance Learner’s Guide
The Illinois Online Network (ION) Successful Student Profile
The Instructional Technology Council
Maryland Online Students Checklist
The Principles of Good Practice for Electronically Offered Academic Degree and Certificate Programs
SAC Online—Strategies for Success for Online Learners
The Sloan Consortium
SORT--The University System of Georgia Student Online Readiness Tool
The University of Wisconsin Distance Education Clearinghouse


Buchanan, Elizabeth A. (2000). Going the Extra Mile: Serving Distance Education Students. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 3 (1) Available:
State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center

Engle, J., Bermeo, A., & O’Brien, C. (2006). Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. 27.

Hellman, C.M. & Harbeck, D.J. (1996). Academic self-efficacy: highlighting the first-
Generation student. Journal of Applied Researach in the Community College
4(2): 69-75.

Ley, K. & Young, D.B. (2001). Instructional principles for self-regulation. Educational
Technology Research and Development 49(2); 93-103.

William, P. & Hellman, C. (2004). Differences in self-regulation for online learning
Between first- and second-generation college students. Research in higher
Education. 45 (1).



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