The advance of online higher education has led to rapid course and program development, the sudden appearance of new colleges across the internet landscape, and passionate debates about the value of online higher education and the best way to implement that education. However, one issue has been overlooked: the importance of extracurricular activities to the college experience. In the current conception of online college, shaped by the perils of life in an uncertain economy, the primary goal is the efficient completion of degrees that will lead to employment. In that scenario, it is certainly easy to dismiss the traditional activities available to college students at brick-and-mortar campuses. After all, how much does belonging to a club or participating in an extracurricular sports activity, service organization, or other non-academic or non-professional activity help a student complete their degree and secure employment?
Quite a bit, it turns out. Research shows that extracurricular activities are central to many issues relevant to online college students and their career goals. For example, Brian C. Briggeman and F. Bailey Norwood, in their article “Employer Assessment of the College Graduate: What Advisors Need to Know” in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, demonstrate that , while it might not be the most important factor in hiring, employers definitely consider the role of non-academic activities in the new college graduate’s life, because it shows them that the job candidate knows how to work with others.
Similarly, an investigation by Shouping Hu and Gregory C. Wolniak, published in Research in Higher Education, shows that “social engagement was positively related to early career earnings of college graduates while academic engagement was not.” In 2009, University of Illinois Professor Christy Lleras also argued “that ‘soft skills’ such as sociability, punctuality, conscientiousness and an ability to get along well with others, along with participation in extracurricular activities, are better predictors of earnings and higher educational achievement later in life than having good grades and high standardized test scores.”
So what are online colleges doing to help students participate in extracurricular activities? Not as much as they should. To be fair, it’s a difficult situation: By definition, the typical online college student does not interact in person with other students or faculty. The insularity and isolation that online students may experience in their solitary pursuit of academic achievement would seem to preclude any attempt to provide opportunities for extracurricular or social activities. Also, many non-traditional students, including students with children and/or full-time jobs, enroll in online colleges to further their careers and simply do not have the same kind of opportunities to explore leisure time options as do traditional students living on a traditional college campus campus. And the economic necessity of holding at least a part-time job, even for traditional students, means that the last thing that many students can squeeze into their often overscheduled lives is an extracurricular activity.
But several online colleges have made the effort to create some sort of online activity that, while not always related to academic coursework, can be beneficial in helping students develop social skills and interact with their peers:
- Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus: Online psychology students can join the online psychology club. This club has members from all over the United States and countries around the world, holds online meetings with video conferencing, provides a newsletter to members, and uses Second Life and Facebook to connect with members.
- Kaplan University offers a variety of options for online extracurricular activities, including clubs, honor societies and different organizations. For example, Kaplan University created the first online chapter of Golden Key honor society. Honorary members include former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, humanitarian and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, entertainers Bill Cosby and Dolly Parton, and many others. Though the Golden Key honor society has come under fire in recent years for spending more on employee salaries than on scholarships, students can still gain valuable information and experiences as part of the society. Kaplan also offers the first ever online Student Bar association through its Concord Law School.
- Ashford University offers online students membership in the Alpha Lambda chapter of Alpha Sigma Lambda, a national honor society that pays particular attention to including online and non-traditional students.
- St. Petersburg College’s eCampus online extracurricular activities include a chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, Digital Artists in Motion, the Hospitality Club, and the Ethics Club.
- Berkeley College reports that “online students have their own student organizations, such as the Online Book Club, the Fashion Club, the Poetry Club, the Parents’ Café, and the Healthy Café. Online students can also participate in various discussion boards, contests, and community outreach programs through Blackboard and can volunteer to become a peer mentor for new online students, assisting them with their transition into the online community.”
But even if a college does not offer online extracurricular activities through its own site, online students can get involved in online activities, clubs, and organizations that will help develop their connections, social skills, and leadership abilities. For example, the Mathematical Association of America offers membership to online students, and the College Blender website publishes news and updates about college life, including different online extracurricular activities available across the country.
The benefits of extracurricular activities have been proven many times, and they have been shown to be beneficial to students seeking employment upon graduation. However, the benefits of such activities do not just fall within the parameters of a job search. Online colleges need to take seriously the mission and purpose of a college education beyond the careerist goals of many students, and include consideration of the intellectual lives of their students as well. In her book “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” University of Chicago Professor of Law and Ethics Martha Nussbaum makes an excellent case for the retention of less economically-driven motivations for college completion, arguing that the very nature of democratic cooperation is dependent upon the abilities of citizens to collaborate and cooperate. For example, she writes that the Humanities are necessary for understanding the human experience: “As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves.”
This empathy can be achieved through reading literature, studying history and art, or through interpersonal interactions such as those we experience in social activities. For online students, then, the need for extracurricular activities goes beyond the desire to have good things on one’s resume. It speaks to the need of all college students—of all people—to experience things outside their comfort zones, to come into contact with difference, to develop their intellectual selves as well as their professional selves. College extracurricular activities have been valued as a path toward such experiences for hundreds of years, and there is no reason why online colleges cannot provide that crucial component of intellectual and social growth for their own students.