Motivating and Retaining Adult Learners in a High-Stress Distance Education Learning Environment

From - The Purdue University Executive MBA in Agribusiness (Ag-EMBA) Program is an innovative joint master’s degree program between Purdue's Krannert Graduate School of Management and its School of Agriculture. Spanning 2 years in four 5-month modules, Ag-EMBA is distinctive in that on-campus instruction is concentrated into 9 weeks of residency (30% of the total program content) spread over a 2-year period (a one-week orientation session, plus 2 weeks of residency every 6 months). Distance delivered instruction accounts for 70% of the total program content. Students in the program average 37 years of age, hold significant positions in their firms, and travel extensively in their jobs. The program requires a commitment of 20 hours per week during the 20 weeks of distance instruction for each module. Given the pressure of their jobs, the need for a personal life, and the 20-hour commitment to their studies, student retention is a major issue in this program. To address the retention issue, three broad strategies have been developed and implemented: preparing a qualified group of learners to be successful in the program, implementing a delivery philosophy that is highly learner focused, and addressing the engagement of the learners at a much more personal level. This paper focuses on the first and third strategies but also reviews some of the key elements of the second strategy. The specific elements of each strategy are presented, and some insights for developing student retention strategies in distance education (DE) programs are offered.