Student Support in Online Learning—We Need to Talk About Money




dropout, attrition, online education deficit, graduation rates, benefits and costs, returns on investment, student retention, money


Online higher education has been a success in part because it is less costly to students and governments than conventional education, so both students and governments receive higher returns on their investment than in conventional higher education. However, many online institutions appear to have considerably lower graduation rates than conventional education—the so-called online education deficit that reduces its advantage. This deficit can be reduced through online education institutions investing money in both their course design strategies and their student support, including teaching. This article focuses on student support and suggests that if support increases student retention, institutions will receive a financial return through increased income. It argues: if that increase in income can then be managed to be greater than the original investment, institutions will make a positive return on the investment—that is, a surplus. That surplus can then be reinvested in further student support and potentially increase student success still further. The article then determines what those returns on investment might be in various scenarios depending on institutional funding arrangements. These determinations produce a series of formulae in which actual financial figures can be substituted to calculate those returns.

Author Biography

Ormond Simpson, Previously Visiting Professor, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand

Principal Interests in Distance Education

  1. Distant student support by various media
  2. Student success and retention, especially -
    - institutional attitudes and structures for retention,
    - the financial costs and benefits of retention activities for students institutions and society as a whole
    - the psychological aspects of supporting students for success, such as enhancing learner motivation
  3. Staff development in distance learning, particularly of tutors and advisers


  • Three books on student support and retention (which have sold more the 4000 copies and one of which has recently been translated into Chinese).
  • Ten book chapters, most recently on costs of retention and ethical issues in distance learning
  • More than 30 articles on the above topics in various refereed journals.
  • A wide range of training materials for staff development including texts, video and audio.

Consultancies and Workshops

Consultant and workshops on various aspects of distance learning in Colombia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, South Korea, The Gambia, China, the West Indies and the UK.  More than 30 presentations in the last five years on distance learning in various institutions in the UK and elsewhere.

Personal History

Previously: Visiting Professor at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand

Previously: Senior Lecturer in Institutional Research at the UK Open University

Prior to those appointments: Lecturer in various universities in Africa, the US and the UK


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How to Cite

Simpson, O. (2023). Student Support in Online Learning—We Need to Talk About Money. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 24(4), 102–118.



Research Articles