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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2020 / Winter 2021)

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Averting enrollment disaster: Recruiting and retaining majors in a digital environment

By Jessica A. Cannon, Associate Professor of History and Instructional Design Liaison for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, University of Central Missouri


Figure 1. A House on the Edge: Higher Education’s Precarious Situation (from Pixabay)


With the Coronavirus pandemic driving courses and programs online, in some cases for the first time and in other cases on a larger scale than ever before, one of many side-effects has been the loss of recruitment opportunities in face-to-face courses. Amid general enrollment and retention declines, universities are also experiencing double-digit drops in the number of majors from fall 2019 to fall 2020, particularly in programs that recruited a large number of majors from General Education courses. Pandemic-related national and state economic crises compound the need for programs to find both short- and long-term methods of recruiting and retaining students in a digital-only space. 

This article will outline several approaches for reaching-out effectively to current and prospective students through digital environments. The approaches are grouped into three categories: student support, student motivation, and outreach. These efforts can improve student retention and recruitment in as short as one semester and be expanded over time, both within a program or scaled-up as part of broader university initiatives.

Recent Trends in Higher Education

In this first full semester of pandemic teaching, anywhere from 60 to 100 percent of courses have significant online course components—not only out of faculty or student preference, but by necessity to accommodate students in quarantine or local health guidelines limiting gatherings of people. While some faculty and leaders may see the move online last spring and this fall as pandemic-related, in truth demand for online courses is not a new trend.  

The majority of college students today are “non-traditional” students, meaning they are returning to campus from the workforce, military, or care-taker roles and need flexible routes to certificates and degrees. Flexibility in accessing campus resources and courses largely means off-schedule courses, hybrid, and online delivery methods that enable these students to fit their education into schedules already set by work and family obligations. Moreover, in the Midwest a looming 2025 demographic “cliff” for high school graduates (because fewer children were born eighteen years prior) will further drive universities and programs to seek new students among these “non-traditional” cohorts. In short, this increase in online, hybrid, and hyflex course models is a permanent change for higher education. Even with a viable vaccine, moving forward online and hybrid delivery will now be equally important to the brick-and-mortar college experiences.

Fortunately, there are numerous programs across the country that have been totally online for a decade or more. Combining the experience of these pioneers with instructional design best practices, this article offers ways to shape program efforts in retention and recruitment. The primary focus here is on working with current students who may have an undeclared major or are considering major and minor options, although implementing these approaches would give a program or campus elements to highlight in marketing to prospective students as well.


Figure 2. Strategies for Retention and Recruitment through Student Support 

One of the most effective ways to retain online and hybrid students is to offer targeted support and resources for students who may never set foot on campus. Multiple ways to access services and information will ultimately benefit all students, but it is absolutely critical for online students to access everything they need to succeed digitally. 

Centralized Portal of Student Resources 

At the institutional level, creating a centralized portal for student resources gives students a single place to go for any question they may have or tool they need to find. Ideally, this is not the Learning Management System (LMS) itself, but an outer “digital atrium” for campus. This atrium allows for branding and funneling information about upcoming events and campus news to students, reinforcing the sense of community, while also providing links to critical services ranging from course registration and financial aid to the LMS and digital library resources as side “galleries” off the atrium. Including all campus support offices is vital to ensuring online students have access to the same opportunities for success as every other enrolled student on campus, whether they need accommodations, counseling or veterans support, or simply tutoring options.

Creating this space involves asking organizations and offices across campus to contribute to the digital experience by providing virtual options for their services, like tutoring or advising via Zoom or online chat for instant help during specific hours. Given this may be beyond the scope of a single program to effect change in this area, one step programs can take is to designate a specific person within the program itself that understands the campus processes and program requirements. That individual ideally is available during business hours and can help a student with questions via phone or Zoom. Listing the individual on the program website and involving them with orientations and regular communications with students helps to identify the person as the “go-to” virtual face of the program.

Digital Presence

Related to student support services and a portal or contact person is digital presence. The foundation of a program’s digital presence is building an informative and layered program website on the main university domain. Without a solid website, a program has limited recruitment options and may find it difficult to effectively direct current students to program resources and requirements, potentially impacting retention. 

A solid program website includes the usual descriptions of what students can do with a specific degree and highlights opportunities or experiences unique to that program at that institution. These are common details any prospective student needs to see. The website should also include information that would allow students to visualize completing the program, for example a course of study chart linking to individual course descriptions and outcomes or projects, a list of available scholarships, and directions for engaging with extracurricular activities or events. This helps current and prospective students see themselves within the program, and visualize what they can or will do at each step along their academic journey. Creating short videos with current students and faculty can supplement text-based information as programs have time and resources to develop them. Information across the website and its sub-pages should cover a student from day one as a prospective applicant to post-graduate alumni and networking opportunities. 

Where other offices on campus may not yet offer sufficient digital access to information, programs may have to create resources or summaries for students. This might include resources explaining how to locate the required texts and order them online from the bookstore, or a summary of what the course codes and abbreviations mean when students go to register for specific sections or courses. It may require programs to hire student tutors to offer tutoring for courses via Zoom if the campus tutoring center does not offer that service. There may be other areas of need too, and one way to identify these bottlenecks for students is to create a Google Form and survey current students. Offering one or two gift cards to Amazon for $25, chosen randomly from all responses, is often sufficient incentive to get most students to complete a short survey.

Digital presence can be also be established through social media platforms like Slack, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. These platforms allow faculty and programs to engage with students or promote events and opportunities to the community. Highlighting current events, publications, photos of students working on projects and internships, and even selecting a student or faculty member to spotlight each week are excellent ways to start using social media. Building networks of alumni that can work with the program or talk with graduating seniors is a great way to use LinkedIn and can be coordinated with the alumni or foundation office on campus. 

Virtual Student Orientations

Orientations are another vital way to support students and to begin to create a sense of identity and community for a cohort of students. Social connections are critical, even if students only chat informally in Zoom or Google Meet. Students begin to know their peers as individuals and have an opportunity to create networks of like-minded individuals that can support their academic journey and educational goals. Shared experiences in classrooms (even digital ones) and informal study or chat sessions build bonds, and it lets students see that they are not alone even if they are taking a class online. Programs and faculty must explicitly facilitate and encourage these student-to-student interactions, at least initially, in order to create this culture in their program or courses.

An online orientation during the week before classes begin can be an excellent starting point for a program new to offering orientations. It is an opportunity for new students to start the semester with positive energy and understand what to expect. It is also a way for returning students to reconnect in a program. Lastly, it is a chance for the program to put faces to names for advisors, faculty, and coordinators, and to convey essential information in a personable, welcoming experience.

The orientation itself can be a single event offered synchronously several times that week, or a combination of asynchronous and synchronous events. Including introductions, ice-breaker activities, and chances for students to work together in break-out sessions are helpful, although a streamlined presentation by program leaders can be equally effective if the primary goal is conveying critical information. Activities, length, information presented, or staff introduced all depend on goals set by the program for the orientation, but providing opportunities to ask questions, meet peers, and learn important program information is a strong starting point.

Course Design

Course design is also one component of student support. Most faculty have access to advice on best practices in course design with Quality Matters, the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), or internal quality assurance guidelines in addition to support by instructional design teams at their institutions. It is worth simply reinforcing the fact that these external and internal quality practices do make a significant difference for student retention. 

Based on student surveys and evaluations, courses with clear organization, articulated alignment among content and assignments, rubrics showing how students will be assessed, and that include relevant, real-world assignments using Universal Design for Learning principles are noticed and appreciated by students. Courses with these features also tend to have higher enrollment and in-course retention, meaning they fill and students generally complete them successfully without dropping out. Ultimately, the more relevant students view the course in relation to their own personal and academic goals, and the easier it is to follow along and understand the work, the more likely students are to stay and complete courses and by extension programs. 

This is especially true where courses or programs are designed to provide opportunities or projects for students to work closely with peers, creating peer support networks as well as a sense of reciprocal obligation to see the assignment through to completion. Project-Based Learning activites are one method of providing the space for students to define some parameters of the work they are doing and make it relevant to their own interests and goals. Gamification is another option, with role-playing, debates, and real-world or virtual reality mock-up experiences increasingly a part of the higher education classroom. These approaches to student support naturally lead to the second set of options explored in this article—beyond supporting students in developing skills and portfolios for after graduation, they also speak directly to student motivation. 


Figure 3. Strategies for Retention and Recruitment Using Motivation 

In addition to showing students how the assignments and content are relevant to their life experiences and career goals, faculty and programs can go further by explicitly addressing student motivation. Granted, there are many factors in motivation, ranging from intrinsic aspects like a student’s personality and experience in the discipline to extrinsic elements like jobs, family, degree requirements, etc. However, faculty can influence some factors that make learning more meaningful for students. For example, an instructor’s excitement for the topic (which is contagious), clarity in explaining the purpose and goals of activities, and individualizing learning through Project-Based Learning or Universal Design for Learning are all choices that can significantly impact a student’s motivation.

Broadly at a program level or individually as faculty in their own courses, encouraging a growth mindset in all students goes a long way toward building resiliency and increasing retention. Students need to develop the metacognitive skills to recover from setbacks by seeing “failures” as learning experiences instead of dead-ends or judgements about their abilities. It is the difference between seeing a D on a paper as an indication that one cannot write well (permanent character trait) versus seeing the D as a chance to speak with the professor and identify what one can do to write better (temporary setback and learning opportunity). When possible, allowing students to resubmit work, use peer evaluation, or working through drafts of projects with an advisor can help students to develop the ability to analyze what they do not know or what did not work and develop a plan to resolve that problem. 

Students also benefit from general resources explaining how to learn and study effectively, and faculty might consider adopting texts like Doyle and Zakrajsek (2013) The New Science of Learning or Watkins and Corry (2013) E-Learning Companion in program courses or as common readers for discussion. Weinstein et. Al. (2018) Understanding How We Learn is also a helpful summary of recent cognitive psychology research. The types of cognitive work and activities demanded of students in college may be fundamentally different from anything they experienced in public schools or life thus far. This disconnect in knowing what to do and how to do it is often one frustration at the root of students’ failure to stick with a course, or education in general. They may not even know what to ask, or understand what they do not understand. Showing students how to manage their time, stepping students through smaller assignments that build to the larger project (especially for first- and second-year students), and teaching them how to learn and study are key. They need the language of learning and processes of how to learn as much as they need traditional content and skills. First generation students especially struggle with these skills, and often lack a support network to guide them, making it a necessity for faculty, programs, and institutions to help guide students from a more holistic approach.

Bounded Communities or Learning Communities 

The bounded communities concept evolved out of the ideas for Communities of Practice (professional participants) and Learning Communities (student participants over several courses or semesters), terms that may be more familiar to readers. Bounded communities apply the concept of building a close-knit, collaborative work experience within the formal “bounds” of one course and a set period of time. In short, students become part of a community working towards the same educational or project goals. 

It is more formal than a typical class structure because the faculty facilitate building an atmosphere of trust and sense of community so that students work collaboratively on a project or specific goal. By creating this sense of collective identity and building knowledge together, this design can offset the loss of community that students and faculty sometimes describe as a result of the shift to hybrid or online formats. 

Creating this culture takes more planning on the part of faculty and students. All participants need to set both synchronous and asynchronous meetings, write or create in digital spaces, and develop and commit to a set of internal rules for engagement and workflow. However, it can be an excellent tool for retaining students and adjusting F2F experiences to a different but still meaningful hybrid or online experience. With planning at the program level, this concept can of course be implemented as a learning community as well.


Figure 4. Strategies for Retention and Recruitment Using Outreach

The last of the three categories explored in this article is outreach, meaning both recruitment of students already enrolled at an institution (who may not have declared a major or are exploring majors and minor combinations) and recruiting prospective students. 

Recruitment that occurs in face-to-face (F2F) courses can be replicated in the digital environment. Faculty play a key role in talking about the relevance of the discipline or in drawing parallels to current events in F2F settings, sometimes taking a few minutes in various class sessions to talk about these “side” topics. It is still possible to have these moments in an online class by adding these comments to weekly overview videos, synchronous or asynchronous discussion or engagement activities, and in recorded lessons. They do not have to be aside comments when used as examples of concepts already being discussed in the class, when they are incorporated as readings or part of lesson materials, or when they provide the faculty member an opportunity to show how a professional in the field would address a specific case study or problem. Using these moments to show how the field and skills are relevant can actually be a way to further captivate and engage students with tangible examples (real or metaphorical) of the discipline.

Recruiting in General Education Courses

One popular way to help students in General Education courses experience the discipline and consider it as a major or minor area is to adapt applied learning activities and projects from an upper-level course to a survey course. For example, consider having students explore a research assignment or analyze a case study with guided inquiry from the faculty. Not only does it help engage and enliven the course with authentic tasks, students can explore the discipline in a relatively safe environment. The experience can bring out the fun aspect of working in the discipline for both the faculty and the students. As faculty, sometimes we may be reluctant to simplify a complex skill or activity for survey-level students, but it can turn out to be the one experiment or experience that peaks a student’s interest and leads them to explore something that they had not previously considered.

Recruitment can also be accomplished through reaching out to students who are performing particularly well on assignments. Faculty can send a short email to the student praising the student’s proficiency of the skill or content and ask if the student has considered a major or minor in that area. This opens the door to discussing common questions about a discipline like how it can relate to the student’s career goals or how the major could provide skills relevant to a variety of careers or paths. Following up in a Zoom session can facilitate further discussion of the student’s plans. Alternately, retaining majors follows a similar strategy—reaching out on a regular basis through email,, or other tools to message students and check in on the progress towards their academic and professional goals encourages them to ask questions and feel that the program community is interested in their individual concerns and success.

Finally, faculty can interact with students both formally and informally to recruit. Through virtual office hours and drop-in virtual open houses, programs can invite students to explore their options and get to know the faculty they will work with as people. Panel discussions, movie screenings (especially with YouTube or streaming services the campus subscribes to) are additional ways to draw in students from General Education courses for events or to invite students from across campus to explore the discipline. Informal events like a virtual game night or designing extracurricular role-playing activities (for example, Mock Trial, Model UN, and similar activities are essentially role-playing) can also attract students.

Prospective Students

All of the strategies discussed in this article can work for current students already at the university as well as for reaching out to prospective students. Where prospective students cannot attend a specific class or event, photos and advertising the event on digital and social media platforms helps students view the program in general as vibrant and engaging. Moreover, hosting orientations, open houses, or panel discussions can specifically target prospective students and bring them to events they may not have known existed or considered as career options. Either sharing the information with area high schools and job agencies or sending an invitation to every prospective that explores the university website for information about the program can be a way to attract new students.


Recruiting and retaining majors is possible in digital environments. The three broader categories explored here include student support, student motivation, and targeted or explicit outreach. Many of the suggested approaches or efforts overlap, making this manageable for programs because it can begin with one small step—a decision to create an orientation or digital student guide—and scale up to include specific outreach in individual classes, expanded digital student resources, learning communities, and exploring new pedagogies like Project-Based Learning, Universal Design for Learning, and gamification. Most if not all the efforts taken to retain majors and minors can, at the least, provide experiences and resources to highlight in recruitment tools. And, where events are scheduled or held virtually, events can themselves be advertised across campus or in the community (including with area high schools and job centers) to attract new students.

Additional Resources

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2019). The new science of learning: how to learn in harmony with your brain (2nd ed.). Stylus.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: the power of passion and perseverance. Scribner.

Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: the new psychology of success (updated ed.). Ballantine Books.

Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: game-based methods and strategies for training and education. Pfeiffer.

Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.

Watkins, R., & Corry, M. (2013). E-learning companion: student’s guide to online success (4th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Weinstein, Y., & Sumeracki, M. (with Caviglioli, O.). (2019). Understanding how we learn: a visual guide. Routledge.

Wilson, B. G., Ludwig-Hardman, S., Thornam, C. L., & Dunlap, J. C. (2004). Bounded community: designing and facilitating learning communities in formal courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning.

Thanks!  The author would like to thank Dr. Catherine Burris at the University of Central Missouri for reading and commenting on a draft of this article.

About the Author


Dr. Jessica A. Cannon is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Missouri.  She also serves as the Instructional Design Liaison for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. She earned a Ph.D. and M.A. in American History from Rice University, and is a Quality Matters Master Reviewer in addition to completing the instructional designer certificate through OLC and graduate coursework in instructional design at George Washington University. 

Her email is  

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