A Note from BestColleges on Coronavirus and the Transition to Online Education
In the wake of COVID-19, colleges and universities across the U.S. and the world are making a rapid transition to online learning.
If you are new to online courses, or are currently transitioning to remote learning full-time, our Online Education Resource Center can help you plan and set expectations for your education.
We are also working to provide information and resources to students about the impact of coronavirus on college life. Read our latest Coronavirus Resources for Students.
We encourage students to communicate their needs with their professors and school support officers. Many services have moved online as schools work to support students through this challenging time.
Your Guide to Online Student Services and Opportunities
When researching online programs, students often consider factors like the quality of instruction, the level of interaction with other learners, and the ability to complete coursework on your own schedule and from the comfort of your own home. But the availability of online student services can also play a major role in determining your success in the classroom.
This guide offers detailed information on the kinds of services that are commonly available to online students, including tutoring, writing support, career guidance, and alumni mentoring. It explains how to check whether a college or university offers the specific kind of assistance you need, how to access services once you have enrolled in a program, and how to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of resources for online students.
All students, whether they need accommodation for a disability or occasional help with a homework assignment, should think carefully about support services when deciding where to continue their education.
Services and Resources Available to Online Students
The availability of online student resources can vary considerably by school and program. Below, we highlight six of the most common services provided to online learners. However, you should check with your college's student affairs office to learn more about specific offerings.
Most colleges and universities pair incoming students with an academic advisor. These faculty or staff members help learners choose a major or concentration, select specific coursework, and navigate the enrollment process. Online students generally participate in an initial consultation with their advisor over the phone or through a communications app like Skype.
During this first virtual meeting, your academic advisor will ask a series of questions about your background, academic interests, and professional goals. Many programs require students to meet with their advisor at least once per semester, though distance learners can typically remain in regular email contact instead.
Academic advisors may also help connect students to other resources, recommend that those with low entrance exam scores work with a tutor, and match learners with career coaches and faculty or alumni mentors. At some schools, advisors even assist prospective students as they apply for admission.
Nearly all high-quality online programs provide tutoring services to students at no additional cost. Most schools offer in-house tutoring in all core subjects, though they may contract with outside providers for more specialized areas, like certain foreign languages. Some institutions also partner with tutoring companies to allow students 24/7 access to academic assistance, a particularly appealing option to those learners who need to study outside of regular business hours.
Students in need of tutoring typically schedule an introductory meeting with a member of their college's academic support team. This person then connects the student with an individual tutor, though they may also recommend the student join a regular group tutoring session. Distance learners can generally work with their tutor via phone, email, or the school's online learning management system.
Tutors may be staff, faculty, or even your fellow students. You may be able to serve as an online student-tutor yourself if you qualify for federal work-study support and excel in a particular subject.
Regardless of your major, you must know how to write well to succeed in college. As a result, many schools offer free access to writing assistance for online students. Writing advisors work one-on-one with students, providing guidance on how to draft a persuasive essay, conduct research, and appropriately cite academic sources. They may also provide feedback on essays that learners must write for class.
Writing centers generally also maintain an online resource library for students. For example, the website for your school's writing center may host detailed guides on grammar, formatting, and developing a thesis statement for a paper.
If your online program does not offer writing assistance, you can still find many of these same resources at the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), one of the most comprehensive sources of online support for writers around the world. The OWL does not provide customized feedback to students who do not attend Purdue.
Your college's career services office can provide various kinds of support to help you find a job after graduation. Career advisors may review and offer feedback on your resume, explaining how to highlight your unique strengths. They may also help you develop a cover letter template that you can customize for specific opportunities. In addition, career services personnel often conduct mock interviews with students and organize both on-campus and virtual job fairs.
These staff members can also help you consider your career options. They may administer career assessments that help online students consider their potential success and satisfaction in different fields and work environments. Career advisors can also help place you in an internship, though online students may need to take the initiative in identifying internship opportunities in their community. Finally, career counselors can help arrange informational interviews and ongoing mentoring relationships with alumni.
Schools with large and diverse alumni networks can more easily help their students explore career options and find jobs. As mentioned above, alumni often participate in informational interviews with current students, offering insight on the day-to-day nature of their work. They can also provide insider guidance on educational requirements, job prospects, and earning potential in their field.
Many colleges administer formal mentoring programs, giving you the chance to develop a networking relationship with an experienced professional. Your mentor may offer general career advice, weigh in on important decisions, and even recommend you for open positions. Though online students can meet with their mentor virtually, you may still benefit from finding a mentor in your own area.
You can continue to attend online and in-person alumni events long after you graduate. These events can help you grow your professional network and learn about new professional opportunities. You may also choose to act as a mentor yourself, paying forward the assistance you received as a student.
While online students have less need for physical health services available through their school, they can still benefit from easy access to counseling and other mental health services. If you feel stressed and overwhelmed by your coursework, a mental health counselor can direct you to relevant resources or work with your instructor(s) to develop an accommodation plan.
Mental health professionals can also offer support for nonacademic issues that may interfere with your classroom learning, such as depression, loss of employment, or the death of a loved one. If you feel like you need help, contact your college's student affairs department to arrange a session with a counselor. Depending on the nature of your problem, they may need to connect you with an outside specialist.
As a note of caution, if you do not have health insurance, your college may require you to sign up for a student plan, even if you study online. You can usually waive this requirement by submitting documentation of your current insurance.
How to Evaluate Online Student Services
Most schools offer student services online, but the quality of those services can vary considerably. To help you determine whether a college or university offers the kind of support that you need, start by asking yourself the four questions listed below.
- Can Online Students Access This Service 24/7?
The best schools provide the same, or roughly comparable, services to students regardless of how they choose to study. Online and in-person learners should enjoy equal access to tutoring, writing consultations, and other forms of academic assistance. Career guidance, enrollment support, and financial aid counseling can also easily be made available to distance learners through the use of technology. Before deciding on a program, review your college's student affairs website to learn more about the availability of services for distance learners.
If your school does not provide information about how they offer these services, contact a member of the student affairs team directly. Ask them if online students can ask questions of the same faculty and teaching assistants, schedule meetings with the same career coaches, and receive support from the same mental health counselors who work with students on campus. You may also ask if the school provides remote access to student groups, leadership development opportunities, and faith-based services.
- Are Services for Online Students Comparable to Those Available on Campus?
Learning outcomes refer to the knowledge and skills you should develop in the course. For example, if you are taking an introductory English composition class, learning outcomes may include a clear understanding of the rules of grammar and syntax and the ability to both outline and write a five-paragraph essay.
Learning expectations refer to how an instructor will assess your progress in their course. Some professors incorporate attendance and class participation into grades. Others rely exclusively on weekly homework assignments and quizzes. In some courses, your overall grade may consist entirely of your results on midterms and final exams.
A quality online course should make both its learning outcomes and expectations clear from the outset. Look for this information in course descriptions and course syllabi. Some schools also offer online "course shopping" as an opportunity to sample a course prior to enrolling. During this shopping period, you can also ask your instructor about expected outcomes and assessment methods.
- Does the School Offer Services That Meet Your Unique Needs?
Ultimately, the most important online student services are the ones that you need to excel both inside and outside of the classroom. International students may want to find a program that provides tutoring and writing support specifically for English language learners. If you are legally blind, you may require accommodations like audio versions of all course materials, descriptions of any visual aids used in lectures, and customized assessments. You may also inquire as to whether staff have experience supporting particular groups of learners, such as first-generation students or military veterans.
If you cannot find information about specific services online, contact a member of the school's admissions or student affairs team. They should direct you to the appropriate staff member, such as a financial aid advisor or diversity and inclusion officer.
- Are Online Student Services Free?
Finally, you should be wary of any program that asks you to pay for individual student services on top of your tuition. The resources outlined in this guide play an integral role in a student's educational experience, and reputable institutions make them available to all learners at no extra cost. Schools may assess a one-time or annual fee to help fund these services, but you should not have to pay on a per-use basis.
However, there are some limited instances in which you might need to pay for additional support. For example, while most schools provide emergency access to mental health services, you typically must rely on your own health insurance if you require ongoing care. In addition, although the majority of colleges and universities provide free tutoring for introductory and intermediate subjects, you may need to pay out of pocket for supplementary instruction in more specialized areas of study.