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Exploring Student Support Services at Online Universities

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent."

— John Donne

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent." — John Donne

You’ve made an admirable decision to go to college, and you want to do well. As an online student, you may feel that you’re on your own. And while it does require a great deal of hard work and independence to succeed as an online university student, there are vital resources at your disposable that can make your learning experience a more productive one. One of the most important resources at your disposal as an online student is the university catalog. Here is an overview of what you can expect to find.

Essential University Information

  • Academic Calendar. Given that the average age of an online college student is 34, that 81% are working, and that many have families, good time management is essential. In fact, several recent studies have shown that the difficulty involved with juggling work and/or family with school is the main reason students fail or drop out of college. Even without these additional pressures, managing courses can be tricky. Therefore, take advantage of the academic calendar(s) offered by your institution. It may contain not only the start and end dates for terms, but also other important dates pertaining to financial aid, drop/add/incomplete requests, final exams, and breaks. Planning ahead by balancing these dates with those of your work and personal life as early as possible can be helpful in managing your time successfully.
  • Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) . Are you one of those people who feel your work and life experience ought to have value as a form of education? It may surprise you to hear that colleges and universities agree. Check the catalog of your institution for "prior learning assessment" (PLA) options. This means you can speak to someone about your work and personal experience, get guidance on what may be applicable to your chosen field of study, and find out how you can document that experience to receive college credit. The University of Phoenix provides a typical example on their website.
  • Transfer Credit. Similar to PLA credit, you may also be able to receive transfer credit for courses completed at other institutions. It’s not unusual, for example, for busy working adults to take a course related to their job, or you may have started college in the past and had to drop out. Be sure to consult the college catalog to see how you may transfer these course credits to your new institution (e.g., Michigan State University has a typical policy). As with PLA credit, transfer credit sometimes involves a bit of work and advocacy on the part of the student, meaning you may have to provide some documentation and input to match the past course with one needed in the present. Most institutions and states have made this process easier by creating "core transfer libraries" (CTL) or articulation agreements that stipulate what courses are accepted for credit.
  • Programs. Another valuable part of a college catalog is the program listings. As a potential student, you may already have taken a look at what programs a college has to offer. The college catalog will provide more useful information in this area than may be realized at first glance. The program listing usually incorporates important information such as general program descriptions, delivery format, program admission and exam policies, and graduation requirements.
  • Course Selection. Typically the largest part of a college catalog is the course description section. Often this is an alphabetized list, divided by subject, of all the courses offered by the institution that includes a brief description of the content, the number of credits the course is worth, and any prerequisites or co-requisites. Prerequisites are courses that must be successfully completed prior to taking the course. For example, Math I is a prerequisite for taking Math II. Co-requisites are courses that should be taken together. For example, Public Speaking 101 may be combined with Freshman Composition 101. You should use this information to make sure you are selecting courses that meet requirements for the number of credits for a specific subject (e.g., most bachelor’s degrees require 6-8 science credits), the required courses for a degree (these are often listed in the order they should be taken), and the interests and needs you have as a student.
  • Degree and Graduation Requirements. In addition to completing the courses listed for a degree program, there may be some additional requirements you need to be aware of that are listed in the college catalog. For example, programs may set a minimum grade point average (G.P.A.) generally (the average in all courses) and/or discipline specific (only those classes directly on your chosen major). You will also typically be expected to turn in any equipment or materials that have been signed out (e.g., library books), to pay all fees owed, to complete a request for graduation, etc. Most of these are simple to complete, but you should be sure to meet all required deadlines to avoid any unnecessary delays.

University Policies

  • Academic Integrity. These policies cover issues related to plagiarism and cheating. Although the vast majority of students to not intend to engage in academic dishonesty, it is wise for you to review these policies and their related examples. There may be some situations you may not realize are a breach of academic integrity. These policies can often assist with information on how to avoid any concerns with your efforts as a student; these may also apply to your professional life after graduation, too.
  • Communication/Netiquette. Most post secondary institutions have guidelines on expected communication within the academic environment that everyone within the learning community must abide by. Failure to do so may result in unexpected penalties as serious as being expelled from the school. The intent is to make sure that all members of the learning community feel safe and comfortable within the educational environment. Central Piedmont Community College provides a quick example.
  • General Classroom Expectations. Post secondary institutions work hard to maintain respect and accreditation for themselves and their programs. Therefore, you will find some general classroom expectations that are upheld throughout the university. You will want to familiarize yourself with these to avoid falling short of these expectations.
  • Attendance. There is a misconception among college students that they do not have to attend courses if they don’t want to: It’s not high school, right? The reality is that although attendance policies at the post secondary level may be a bit more generous and less micromanaging, they typically do exist. On a ground campus, students may fail after missing a certain percentage of class meetings. Online schools easily track student attendance and activity in their courses via the Learning Management System (LMS), which will allow faculty and administration to see if students have sign into a course, participated, and submitted assignments. At Kaplan University, for example, new students who do not sign in for the first week and students who do not sign in for more than 21 consecutive days are automatically withdrawn from the school. These are situations you want to avoid.
  • Participation. Participation is closely connected to attendance; however, participation policies carry the additional student responsibility of actually doing something once you arrive in the classroom. Many online schools, for instance, require a certain number of discussion board posts over a specific number of days.
  • Faculty. Within the above policies, there is often some leeway allotted to faculty as they are logically the ones who are their students’ main point of contact. Therefore, check the individual policies of each course in the syllabus and ask your professors any questions you may have so that you are clear on what is expected of you.

Student Resources

The college catalog often provides students with information and contacts for a variety of resources to help them be successful. You should familiarize yourself with these resources as soon as possible so that when you need them, you know where to turn. Many offer orientations and/or free tours. For example, the Indiana University Library website provides a good example of why you need to become familiar with this resource. They not only have materials, they also offer a variety of "how to" resources (e.g., how to conduct research). There are also tours, orientations, one-on-one sessions with a librarian, the opportunity to instant message a staff member with a quick question, etc. Most libraries also offer free access to the hardware and software needed to complete your courses and facilities for activities like study groups. Here are some more resources students can expect:

  • Technology. Most colleges offer technical free support to students. This may include signing out or purchasing needed equipment and/or software, troubleshooting for your computer, and training.
  • Learning Centers. Universities typically offer a variety of learning center options to students. These may be broken down by major skill (e.g., a writing center, a math center, etc.) or they may be more of a one-stop learning center. These usually provide students with free tutoring, assignment review services, various assessments, etc. Most offer virtual and automated options in addition to F2F support. For example, you may be able to sit down with a writing tutor in person or over the Internet (e.g., using Skype) to review a paper for a course. You may also be able to submit that same paper to an automated grammar and plagiarism check site. It is well worth your time to check out what is offered at your institution of choice.

Staff and Administration

Universities can be intimidating, so don’t be afraid to use the college catalog to find an actual person to reach out to for assistance. Each area has specific boundaries or duties within which they may assist students, so here is a brief overview of what each area does to help guide you.

  • Admissions. This office is like the "host" of the university. Admissions staff will greet prospective students, answer questions they may have about the institution, provide tours, and guide them through the application process. An increasing number of admissions offices are also tracking student progress and success.
  • Advising. Your advisor should be the friend you may find yourself wishing for as you pursue your education. Advisors are a general resource to help you succeed in college. They often provide assessment and advice to help you achieve your educational and career goals. They typically assist with personal issues that may arise (e.g., a health concern) to lessen the interference in your educational progress.
  • Financial Aid. This is the place to go for information on what resources may exist to help you pay for any education related expenses. Staff in this area will assist you with brainstorming possible funders for your education based on your personal demographics, goals, and needs. They typically offer access to databases and other sources of financial aid information that is available. This is worth checking into because there is more money available to students than more are aware of, and occasionally available money is unused because there were no applicants in a particular year. This is especially true of smaller, local scholarships.
  • Faculty. Members are often listed in a college catalog to assist students with knowing where faculty are located and what degrees, ranking, and other credentials they may hold. You should not be afraid to reach out to faculty with questions or requests for assistance. Keep in mind they were once students, so they are often sympathetic.
  • Administration. Administration manage the university, and the functions of administrators boil down to ensuring that the institution provides a quality educational experience for students. Therefore, if you are dissatisfied with any experience you are having with your education, do reach out to an administrator. Do check the college catalog for a chart or the identification of the appropriate administrative role. You will typically want to start with a program coordinator; then move up the ranks through the department chair, dean, and if necessary, to the provost, a vice-president, or even the president of the university. It is best to be respectful and not to over escalate a concern. It’s also fine to share your positive experiences and successes as a student and alumnus with these individuals.

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