With graduate students pouring into online programs, GW tries to reel them in

Fifty years ago, most students commuted to Foggy Bottom for classes each day, creating an alumni base with loose social ties to GW.

Now, with thousands of graduate students who spend the majority of their time off campus in online programs, GW is crafting a plan to avoid repeating history.

To help more students become “part of the fabric of the GW experience,” the University’s top official for online education, Paul Schiff Berman, is working with student life leaders to encourage regular check-ins with the thousands of graduate students who are living off-campus and learning online.

Berman, who is working to create a strategic plan solely for online programs, told the Board of Trustees this month that there is still much work to do to strengthen connections between distance students and the physical campus.

“I want online students to feel like they are part of the University, and that they are not in any way adjunct to what we do as a university,” Berman said.

GW’s student life arm has rolled out cyber resume and cover letter critiques, online speed-networking events, virtual career fairs and a live-stream of graduate orientation in an effort to give the full-tuition-paying online students the same services to which their peers on campus have access.

Andrew Goretsky, director of the graduate, distance and professional student experience in the Center for Student Engagement, said his team has been looking into translating Welcome Week programs, speaker events and smaller programs that the CSE does to an online format.

Still, he said, it’s a challenge because the population, which ranges from students just out of college to middle-aged professionals with families, makes it hard to have a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting the students.

“[Those] students are at various stages in their lives and all of these factors affect how they connect or want to connect with GW,” Goretsky said.

Sandra Coswatte, an online education consultant for a firm called Sloan Consortium, said students are more likely to donate if they feel their success is due to the support they received from their university – whether they took online classes or attended in person.

“If online students do well, graduate and get good jobs, then they probably owe something to the school that they went to,” Coswatte said. “But this all relates to the University’s resources for these students like career services, or maybe even finding alumni to do things like webinar sessions.”

Michael Morsberger, vice president for development and alumni relations, said students who help fundraise for GW are trained to speak with online alumni in a different way: focusing less on their experiences at GW and more about how their education was tailored to their fast-paced lifestyle.

Students typically sign up for online programs because of that flexibility. Michael Kelley, 40, a first-year graduate student studying legal counseling online, said online classes are better than nothing, even though students may prefer face-to-face interactions and studying with peers.

“It’s a trade-off,” Kelley, who has a family and full-time job, said. “I do miss the opportunity to engage in in-person discussions in class. We have discussion boards online, but there is a whole lot that’s lost in that.”

Chip Paucek, chief executive officer of 2U, an educational start-up that facilitates GW’s online public health master’s degree, said alumni engagement is not a big part of most online programs, but it should be. The problem stems from said students who don’t feel “in the knitting of the school.”

“You have to contact them about more than just fundraising. You have to offer them a chance to be a part of the community,” Paucek said.

The increase of online students working towards a GW degree comes at a time when GW is seeking to boost its historically small alumni donor base to grow academic and research programs without having to rapidly increase tuition.

Some students say coming to campus and seeing resources like Gelman Library in person helps when they use those tools online. After coming to orientation for his rehabilitation counseling program, David Ritter, 52, said he realized there were many resources he could access from his home in Hershey, Pa.

Still, he said he misses personal interactions.

“It would be nice to have touchpoints, to see the faces and hear the voices of people who are talking,” Ritter said.

– Mary Ellen McIntire and Chloé Sorvino contributed to this report.

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