A strategy to ensure equity, retention amid COVID

By Lisa Jones Copprue

Connection and engagement strategies to better support students.

As colleges continue online instruction for spring 2021, it is important for student services, success and support professionals to consider the impact on students, their success and outcomes. Now more than ever, it is important to anticipate student needs, reach out and connect them to services and supports and engage them in the life of the college, and with key personnel who can guide them through their educational journey.

It is estimated that 17% of community college students withdrew from spring 2020 classes and that 20% of students can be forever lost if colleges do not respond quickly to issues of educational equity and student connection and engagement. Only 15% of students normally choose to study online at community colleges, which means 85% prefer face-to-face instruction. This “forced” virtual learning mode, without comprehensive, accessible support, will not only impact enrollment, but it will forever alter the plans of degree attainment by far too many students.

I have watched my son struggle since the start of the pandemic with continued full-time enrollment at the university where he attends. Though it has been an adjustment for him to stay on track without face-to-face reinforcement from faculty, most jarring has been the radio silence of support and engagement offices who we thought might actively reach out to students in anticipation of financial, technology, academic and personal needs which may arise. He also discovered that responses to emails come days later, if at all, and with a business as usual tone. For him, things are far from usual.

This is but one example, and I am certain many universities are doing remarkable work to connect and engage students, but I know that, given our mission and commitment to equity, community colleges can do better.

Better connections

I recommend the following connection and engagement strategies, which have been supported by reliable research/data, in efforts to achieve educational equity among students:

  • Enrollment personnel (including advisors) should connect early with newly admitted students to ask whether they have any concerns or faced any roadblocks which may prevent them from completing their registration or preparation for the semester. Respond to students within hours when they share their concerns and needs, offering a concrete solution and providing a warm hand-off to the correct person or department. Follow up with the student to make sure the issue is resolved.
  • Avoid using jargon, acronyms and other higher education “speak” when helping students navigate concerns. If their stress level is high, throwing terms at them that they do not understand will not make you look smarter, but it will, in contrast, make them feel less so. Teach them later, after the problem is solved.
  • Personalize student messages and reinforce the fact that you care about their success and will be there to help them.
  • This should go without saying, but respond to student calls and emails as soon as possible and in less than 24 hours.
  • Assign students to an “advocate” at the onboarding stage. If your institution does not currently assign students to specific advisors, this may be the time to start. If this is not possible, identify other appropriate student champions to whom students should be referred, perhaps by a constituent group. Staff, faculty and student leaders make great champions with students assigned to them by affinity groups, including veterans, athletes, students with disabilities, academic program/major, and academic year/status, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender and sexual orientation. etc. Provide champions or advisors with the proper information and tools to be effective.
  • Administer a brief survey or conduct short focus group sessions to assess students’ needs and respond to them, including, technology support, tutoring, housing, food, tuition assistance, mental health, isolation, academic planning, etc. Immediately connect these students to internal and external supports and services and follow up to ensure students received the help they need.
  • Reach out to faculty to test the temperature of students’ acclimation to the online learning environment. Offer them resources and direct contacts for use in referring students who may be struggling with non-academic issues or who may not be actively engaging in classroom activities.
  • Mitigate the distance in distance education by implementing virtual co-curricular learning communities, discussion boards and events.
  • Students who choose virtual learning are active online mostly between 10 pm and 2 am. Adjusting service and support “hours” will have a significant positive effect on student satisfaction and success. With many support personnel continuing to work from home, changing their hours, though inconvenient, will greatly support efforts to connect and engage students.
  • Create, offer and enroll students in virtual internship experiences. Career and technical education students express concerns that, once they graduate, they are not considered for employment because they do not have experience. Transfer students express worry that they may not like the program they chose and wish to learn practical elements of the career they are pursuing. In addition to the career-specific value of experiential learning, internships are great ways to ignite or re-ignite student excitement in their chosen major but also to help them remember why they enrolled in college in the first place.
Lisa Jones Copprue

has served in higher education for 32 years, including 17 years in the community college sector. She most recently was vice president of student development and enrollment at Dallas College-Cedar Valley in Texas.